Amherst high school students win medals in arts competition

  • “Detainees,” oil painting by Ava Blum-Carr Image courtesy of Jeffrey Stauder

  • “Amalia,” pen and ink drawing by Ling Li Image courtsesy of Jeffrey Stauder

  • “The Last City,” drawing/ graphic-novel page by Maya Durham Image courtesy of Jeffrey Stauder

  • From left, Ava Blum-Carr, Maya Durham, Ling Li Photo by Jeffrey Stauder

For the Gazette
Thursday, May 18, 2017

Three Amherst Regional High School students have made a serious artistic statement this spring.

Seniors Ava Blum-Carr, Maya Durham and Ling Li have won gold and silver medals in the nation’s longest running creative arts competition for teenagers, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

“We’re tremendously proud to have three National medalists this year,” said Jeffrey Stauder, the head of the Art Department at Amherst Regional High School (ARHS). “It speaks to the high quality of work produced in the department and to the development of our young artists.”

Established in 1923, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards recognize “the vision, ingenuity, and talent of our nation’s youth, and provide opportunities for creative teens to be celebrated,” according to the New York organization’s website, www.artandwriting.org. The awards recognize student achievement in grades 7-12 in 29 categories, including poetry, photography, sculpture, humor, editorial cartoons and video-game design.

This year, the organization reviewed 330,000 works of art and writing at the regional level. The Amherst students now share company with artists and writers such as Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Andy Warhol and John Updike, who also won Scholastic Awards when they were students.

“This senior class is a particularly talented group, with these three winners among the standouts,” said Stauder. “It’s a joy for us to watch them develop as artists, both technically and conceptually, over their four years with us.”

The students have been part of an Art Portfolio class taught by Ben Sears, who has been at ARHS for 12 years. Sears says he feels lucky to have worked with the three seniors.

“The students who come through the Art Department are amazing to work with, not only in regards to their artistic ability, but also in terms of their thoughtfulness and willingness to push themselves creatively,” said Sears, who received an MFA in painting from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

Inspired by current events

Maya Durham, 17, of Amherst, won a gold medal in the category of comic art. Her piece, “The Last City,” takes the form of pages from a black -and-white graphic novel that depicts the journey of refugees from an unnamed land. It’s the only artwork from a Massachusetts student to be selected for the comic art award.

Durham, a native of Scotland, said she was inspired by the refugee crises in different parts of the world, such as in Syria and Iraq. “I was just trying to take these stories and hopefully make it personal by providing a narrative,” she said.

Durham’s use of black and white, as well as the stark silhouettes of the subjects, creates a captivating image, said Sears. ” ‘The Last City’ is touching, beautiful and very relevant. The pages she submitted [to the contest] are a testament to Maya’s ability as a visual storyteller and graphic artist.”

Winning a gold medal for her oil painting, “Detainees,” Ava Blum-Carr, of Hadley, says she’s flattered the selection committee chose her work. Blum-Carr, who’s also interested in the topic of immigration, said her inspiration came from a photograph of Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, a couple (she is an American, he a Canadian) who were kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012.

“Art should not be just a nice thing to look at — it should have more to it,” said Blum-Carr, 17. “It should draw a comparison that’s uncomfortable.”

In her painting, she juxtaposes a portrait of Coleman and Boyle — they are still in captivity today — with images of various U.S. detention centers that hold people who have entered the country illegally.

“When I made the painting, I was feeling conflicted about it,” said Blum-Carr. “The point of my piece is that there are certain people who are invisible, and there are certain people who [get] a lot of attention, and why is there that difference?”

“These westerners get kidnapped [overseas], and everyone’s really concerned for them and their safety — which they should be,” she added. “But at the same time, we’re holding all these people captive in our own country and not really thinking about them at all.”

Ling Li, of Amherst, won a silver medal in the drawing and illustration category for her piece, “Amalia.” It’s a stark, haunting portrait of a young woman who seems to be gasping in fright.

Li’s work, said Sears, “is one of the most visually sophisticated cross-hatched drawings I’ve seen in my career.”

“My piece is a pen cross-hatching of an individual who is scared. Her eyes are widened in horror and her hands are clenched near her face,” said Li, 18. “I utilized strong contrasts of black and white to produce a more dramatic effect.”

Both and Blum-Carr and Durham will be honored alongside other U.S. students during an awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York on June 8. The students’ work will also go on tour across the country and then be exhibited at the U.S. Department of Education and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, both in Washington, D.C.