Picture a high school cafeteria. It's chaotic, full of teens catching up on conversations and text messages in between bites of lunch.
Notice the young woman quietly observing her classmates, then turning back to her sketchbook as she draws their faces.
Karissa Gonzalez-Othón stands out among other 17-year-olds at the Vanguard School, an offshoot of Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy. But she's an absolute star at Imagination Space, the Imagination Celebration facility in the Citadel mall; her work in the Young People's Art Exhibition, which displayed 325 pieces, is festooned with ribbons.
Her life-sized sculpture of an African warrior, which sprang entirely from Gonzalez-Othón's imagination, won best of show. Her oil of a woman with unforgettable eyes took first place in painting — an amazing feat, considering she took up the medium just last year.
"I do like oil painting," she says shyly. "I like to do people in general." Not bad for her second public art appearance.
Her teacher, Greg Custer, thinks so highly of her talent that he began working with her after school when she couldn't fit art classes into her schedule.
"She's fabulous," he says. "We went up for a portfolio review in Denver, and the Kansas City Art Institute was there and she showed her work to the gentleman there. He just kept looking at it and looking at her. Finally he said, 'I look at portfolios for all incoming students, and I don't see something like this every year. This is a once-in-three-years portfolio.'"
Deborah Thornton, Imagination Celebration's executive director, also is a fan. After 25 years working with artists in this region, she can't think of anyone else — of any age — so skilled in both two- and three-dimensional art.
"Last year, we saw her work and we were like, 'Whoa.' We were just waiting to see what would come in from her this year."
Thornton is proud of the entire exhibit, now in its 50th year. Imagination Celebration has hosted it for seven years, after taking over for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in Thornton's first year as executive director.
"Every single piece in here is a winner, because they got chosen to be in this exhibit," she says. "There are thousands of kids who aren't in this exhibit."
Karissa has enrolled at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, where Custer studied, and hopes to become a studio artist after college.
To those skeptical about the usefulness of an art degree, Thornton says, "Part of what we talk to parents about is that, no matter what career your child goes into, they have a strength and ability to add to that career. They learn to look deeply, they learn to really observe, they learn to use their imagination."