For Scholastic Art & Writing Awards winners, challenging times inspire bright ideas
She thought it would take longer to collect the trash. But when Wenjing Zhang set out to create her first video, a piece about environmental conservation, she had everything she needed within a day.
“I didn’t go to buy any plastic just for my video. I just asked my friends [to bring] their bottles,” said the 18-year-old senior at Sacred Heart School of Kingston. “I thought I would need more than two days to collect . . . stuff. Actually, I found [it took] less than one day. That hurt my heart a little bit.”
Zhang’s stop-motion animation, “Effluxion,” chronicles the death of a whale. The mammal has a realistic looking, oil-painted head and tailfin and its body is a plastic grocery bag. As many real sea creatures do, the whale mistakes trash for prey and gobbles it hungrily. Its belly stretches to hold the pollution, eventually giving way to white hot punctures. The video’s soundscape then takes us to an ocean shore, where similar bodies have been found.
“I researched this and I saw a lot of pictures of those animals. Their dead bodies [are] on the beach and people can find some plastic stuff in their stomach,” Zhang said. “[People] will think, ‘Oh this is just a water bottle. It will not hurt anybody.’ I think it’s not true. I’m trying to let other people look at those truths and stop to think about it.”
“Effluxion” earned Zhang a coveted Gold Key in this year’s Massachusetts Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, which received more than 12,000 entries according to Kenson Truong, the awards’ regional program director. Submissions are wide-ranging, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, ceramics, jewelry, video games, and visual art in many media. There’s even a division called “Future New,” dedicated to young artists who’ve managed to create something that doesn’t fall into any of the 28 other categories in the competition. This year more than 3,000 pieces won awards, Truong said.
Since 1923, the national program has recognized talent among students in grades 7 through 12. Past honorees include New England natives Sylvia Plath and Stephen King.
The awards are sponsored by the Boston Globe Foundation in collaboration with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. The winners’ works will be exhibited at Tufts from March 16-25.
“We are lucky to live in a state with so many promising young artists,” said Nancy Bauer, dean of the SMFA. “In these challenging times, the commitment of these students to expressing their ideas in public-facing mediums is a brightly shining beacon of hope.”
For Zhang, winning is exciting, but she’s even more thrilled by her classmates’ response to her work. An international student from China, she’s been in America for almost three years now, but expressing complex ideas in English still proves challenging. When she showed them “Effluxion,” they understood her perfectly.
“That is my first time [that] I can share my information and my thoughts to other people,” she said. “Maybe we are speaking in different languages or we even didn’t talk with each other before, but they can understand what I’m thinking when they see my video.”
Zhang was not the only winner to explore environmental themes. Zoe Goldstein won a Gold Key for her short story, “Undrowning.” In her tale, humankind has ignored warnings about climate change, and Paris is sinking below sea level. The city’s rainy end is seen through the eyes of Louise, whose family is fleeing their apartment.
“I went on the French exchange with my school last year,” the 16-year-old Newton North junior explained. “While I was having that experience, I kind of knew. I was like, ‘I’m going to write something about this.’ ”
Climate change is important to Goldstein, but she also had her eyes on another issue. In “Undrowning” Louise’s family is escaping to Mel’s house in the country, where she reunites with the young woman who used to be her best friend until their parents caught the two embracing some years before. Goldstein is passionate about making sure LGBT people are represented in science fiction and fantasy stories, particularly ones that don’t revolve around the characters’ identities.
“It’s important to have stories that are fully about being LGBT, but it’s also important to have stories that aren’t about that because that’s not the [entire] focus of LGBT people’s lives, just having that identity,” she said. “It’s a lot more than that.”
The narrative is couched in a fairy tale, one about a lost city set to emerge when Paris sinks, but it’s most beautiful when it’s the most mundane. The City of Light is drowning, and the two families are still begrudgingly coming to terms with their daughters’ queerness.
Ultimately, the story’s title is less about a mythical city than it is about Louise and Mel and their own resurfacing. Goldstein writes, “Louise realizes that something inside Mel has died in these years by the sea, that she has been engulfed. . . . And that is enough for now, the two of them at the edge of the bay . . . they both understand that if that is it, they will swim out to the undrowning city in the freezing water and never come back.”
Because of incorrect information supplied to the Globe a prior version of this story gave an incorrect age and class level for Zoe Goldstein.