While reading this review, I invite you to consider how to ­­continue the rich tradition of art in Cincinnati. The exhibition Identity: (un)real presents artwork created by high school students from seventh through 12th grade. The exhibition is the culmination of relentless effort put forth by participants of the annual Taft Museum Artists Reaching Classrooms (ARC). Taft Museum staff, docents, professional artists, high school teachers and students from nine regional schools pushed for months through the pandemic to succeed in those efforts. The Annex Gallery joined ARC this year to display these works in its professional venue. It is my hope to inspire you to nurture future artists, value art across generations, and visit the exhibition which runs through the end of May 2021. First, I will provide some background about the exhibition then present various artwork.

I interviewed a few individuals to better understand the program and provide context to this review. “ARC immerses high school art students in Cincinnati’s visual arts community and exposes them to careers in the arts (https://www.taftmuseum.org/teachers-schools/school-visits).” Emma McAvoy, Taft Museum Assistant Manager of Programs emphasized how importantly it “shows students how their passion can be put into a career.” Artist Kay (Katherine) Hurley, an ARC participant for several years, expressed the importance to help young people ignite their passion in art. She sees the importance to show them the possibilities to make it a career, a way to make a living by being an artist. Kay stated that as visual arts are undervalued in America, it is necessary for successful artists to help nurture young people in their career pursuits. As she experienced, one can have a successful career pursuing her or his passion in art. It requires hard work and commitment but is possible and rewarding.

In a normal year ARC provides students with field trips to professional artists’ studios, docent-led tours of the Taft Museum, and engagement with artists who visit their classrooms. In 2021, due to the pandemic, this was not so. Therefore, the Taft created 11 individual videos of artists in their studios to show where they work, point out different media and tools, and discuss how they were inspired at a young age to pursue their passion. The art teachers who committed their time to guide students through the final project were key to this year’s success, especially through difficult pandemic conditions. Courses were taught virtually. Students were often alone at home. Walnut Hills High School teacher Kim Watling shared with me about the difficulty of teaching art without hands-on instruction. She even supplemented teaching by delivering materials to students’ homes. On occasion she would lose students’ online participation as they would succumb to the isolation and land in Children’s Hospital. One more individual who provided support to this year’s ARC program is Jens Rosenkrantz. He offered his Annex Gallery to host the exhibition. This provided another level of professional experience for the student artists and something to add to their portfolios.

As the title Identity: (un)real suggests, the artists were to consider questions like: What are some different identities a person may have? How do others perceive who you are on the outside? How do you perceive yourself internally and externally? Emotionally and physically? What makes up who you are?  It is always difficult to choose a few pieces from many to highlight in an article. I decided to base my choices to highlight on those artworks whose artist’s statements related how their work represents their ARC experience, on pieces that portray the artists’ potential to grow and evolve, and on artwork that immediately evokes emotional response. Overall, it is an inspiring and encouraging exhibition to view and an important part of Cincinnati’s art.

“Trapped in a Cellar” by Simon Glaser, 10th grade, Walnut Hills High School

Simon Glaser’s detailed, glazed clay sculpture underscores the challenge of a student’s life in isolation during the pandemic. He writes, “The sculpture is about how I felt in quarantine and what it was like during this time. The single man represents myself, and the smaller saltcellar is empty; losing its flavor and shrinking in status with hopes to be fulfilled again.”  Glaser alludes to a piece of tableware that held salt during ancient times. Salt was highly valued to preserve food and would be displayed in a saltcellar on one’s table that also represented societal status. I like how Glaser uses the saltcellar from the Middle Ages which underwent the Plague, as a metaphor into today’s COVID-19 pandemic.  Importantly I see the man standing, focused, and continuing to exist during a challenging time. There is hope that his saltceller refills with flavorful, valuable salt, or in this case, self.

“Wonders of Our Skin” by Christal Watson, 7th grade, Woodward Career and Technical High School

The ARC program had at least two 7th grade classes participate this year and submit evocative artwork such as this portrait above. Christal Watson was inspired by contemporary artist Aramis Hamer to create this piece. She draws and paints her richly hued mixed media piece to show how “African American skin can be just as beautiful and full of wonders like the Universe.” The purple side represents a galaxy and purple. I find that not only the subject’s skin can be beautiful, but her eyes, shaded features, and highlighted braids as well. The unbuttoned sleeve exposing her shoulder seems to invite the viewer to know her more. Watson concludes, “This piece opened my eyes to different colors. This piece will definitely influence my future pieces.” I expect to see this aspiring young artist’s work certainly grow and evolve.

“Palm Reading” by Jade Hays, 11th grade, The Summit Country Day School

Wide strokes of bold yellow-gold flow from the top of the canvas to wrap the blue thoughtful figure in warmth. Blue continues to integrate the figure comfortably into the palms which hold her. The varied purple, crimson, and dark gold shaped lines provide depth to this composition and suggest a vastness to her world. I see the green insects as beautiful scarabs, yet Jade Hays writes otherwise: “This artwork perpetuates what lies underneath my skin, the complexity, the simplicity, the messiness that my life and character have to offer. Juxtaposed to beauty lie the bugs, the grit, the simplicity of myself.” Hays successfully responds with watercolor and acrylic to the question about internal and external perception, emotionally and physically, and about what makes up who you are.

“Don’t Touch My Hair” by Jourdan Jones, 10th grade, Cincinnati Country Day

How much more could an artist depict annoyance, imposition of others’ hands upon oneself, or so much pressure to deal with from the outside? Jourdan Jones successfully evokes emotion with watercolor and graphite pencil in her piece. Not only are the scissor handles painted red, symbolic of aggression, but so is one entire hand. Notice that the red hand points the scissor blade like a gun dangerously close to the figure’s eye. Pale hands are all over this woman of color while her face, by way of her eye and closed mouth, suggests that she strongly holds back her thoughts. The wash of grays and pinks seemingly add shadows of others in the background.  Jones’ artwork criticizes American beauty standards that “natural black hair is unprofessional, ugly, and different. She also brings symbolic notice to gun violence and police violence against the black community. I see this young artist going far in her work and representative of a young person for our community to nurture in this way.

“A Beautiful Mess” by Lilian Bewaji, 12th grade, Winton Woods High School

When I see Lilian Bewaji’s mixed media piece, it reminds me of intricate, organized, and very refined paper collages that I have seen in professional galleries. Her piece represents another example of an artist who has potential to grow in her skills and style. If you can look through the glare that my iPhone photo at her hair, you will see a lot of thought and effort went into planning color, shape, and direction of placing the cut paper. I like how she drew her face expressive of hope as she gazes upward into the unknown. In the rest of the piece Bewaji presents a story of herself with pasted text and cut graphics. She writes that her piece “uses cut up objects/words that make me whole.” Two paintings at the Taft Museum inspired her work. The composition of “Song of Talking Wire” by Henry Francois Farny, and a Portrait of President Taft. The young artist “learned patience and preparation” through producing this artwork and this represents a success of the ARC program.

“Hidden Mural” by Noah Andersen, 12th grade, Kings High School

The topic changes from portraiture to landscape in the next two images. Noah Andersen’s digital painting above is based on the story behind the Duncanson hand-painted murals in the Taft Museum. The artist answers the question about how others perceive him on the outside. He writes, “The wallpaper displays several words that have been used to describe me, symbolizing my fake identity. It is being torn away to reveal the hidden painting, representing my real identity, of a world forged in my mind.” He continues that the piece “symbolizes my outside, reserved personality that most people see versus my real self with a drive to create.” He composes a nicely balanced piece with partial exposure of frame and image. The distant mountains provide open space for the viewer to add their own story upon the landscape, just like people have added words upon the artist in describing him. Again, the young person with passion to create, to be an artist, and who could potentially follow a career to do so.

“Le Lever du Soleil du Brésil” by Leona Messer, 11th grade, Princeton High School

Another landscape, in this case seascape, captured my eyes to flow from ship to ship with billowing pink clouds across the sea to the iconic el Cristo of Rio de Janeiro whose open arms await all. The solid foreground browns and tans of a Brazilian beach hold the seascape in place. The artist’s mix of color and brushstrokes create a lively ocean through which the ships quickly pass. Notice the clouds’ reflection upon the distant waters. Leona Messer writes about her piece, “My admiration for the painting in the Taft collection titled “Europa and the Bull” led me to create this sunrise painting on the water.” She used this painting to experiment with color and explore the use of space. Again, can you envision how this young artist’s work will grow and evolve? What talent lies within her!

“Purple Forest” by Qu’Naiysah Young-Estill, 7th grade, Hughes STEM High School

The last piece I chose to highlight is based on its quickness to evoke the viewer’s emotion, the emotion of happiness! Each time I gaze upon this digital media self-portrait, I sense the artist’s joy. It is Qu’Naiysah Young-Estill’s joy about being in the happy place that she created for herself. It represents the one thing she loves – nature. The mystical pink-lavender atmosphere, the surrounding silhouette of trees, and quietly flying butterflies gently comfort the artist in her rose crown. The composition, balance of light, shadow, and color create a very nice image. Young-Estill’s passion comes through and you know it has only begun. Her piece provides a nice place to end my review.

In closing, the highlighted artwork and artist statements demonstrate what the Taft Museum’s ARC program is about. It inspires young people to use art to best express themselves, validates that art is part of what makes them thrive, and shows them how their community offers support for them to grow and opportunities for a career.  I applaud the teachers, professional artists, Taft docents and staff, and gallerist who put their time and effort into helping nurture these students. I applaud the students for following their teachers’ guidance and staying on task through an unusual situation in which at times they may have felt alone. It is clear to me from the over 70 pieces of artwork that I viewed at the Annex Gallery, that Cincinnati has a thriving young population of artists. It is also clear to me that we must continue to support our young artists as they grow. They give hope that Cincinnati’s art mecca will thrive, and I look forward to seeing their work evolve in the future.

–Deborah Johnson

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