Student art exhibit shows wide range of style, talent and inspiration

Artist Rodney Wood, the amiable and enthusiastic director of the Business of Art Center, was doing his best to create a little buzz around his new show.

"It's phenomenal, extraordinary!" he crowed. "You wouldn't believe the kind of work that these kids do. There are studio artists here at the BAC who look at this stuff and are just amazed, and dismayed. ..."

Blah, blah, blah. I like Rodney, but come on, I thought, this is a show of art by high school kids.

I expected derivative, kitschy stuff, maybe a little talent here and there, but nothing more. Still, you never know.

So off I went to Wunder-kind, an exhibition of works by eleven artists "selected from this region's public schools," which will be on display at the Business of Art Center until April 1.

Rodney was right. It's extraordinary. Every artist is competent, some are very good, and at least one is brilliant.

Doherty student William Deepe's black-and-white photographs are mature and accomplished. "Reflections," a beautifully composed and printed image of a canal in the French countryside, might have been created by Eugene Atget.

Similarly, "Sisters," a study of a 19th-century funerary sculpture, is an unexpected delight. Delightful, because of its sophistication; unexpected, because of its subject.

Another photographer, Manitou High School's Nathan Robinson, is represented by two particularly fine images. One is a view of Cheyenne Mountain seen from the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad tracks downtown, and another is a strikingly original take on one of the most hackneyed views in Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes.

Ryan Putnam, also from Manitou, has four pieces in the show. "My Fridays" and "Daily Routine" are marvelously witty, skillfully executed and all together engaging. In carefully constructed, cleverly jumbled wax crayon drawings, Putnam pulls together the visual landscape of a teenager's life -- the car, the CD, McDonald's, school -- it's all there. Putnam's draftsmanship would be noteworthy for a professional artist twice his age; for an 18-year-old, it's amazing. His compositional skills are equally remarkable -- a wonderful portrait series, portraying the artist in a dozen slightly different takes, bears witness to those skills. Portraits of any kind are technically challenging, and self-portraits are emotionally challenging as well. Putnam's works succeed aesthetically through technical merit, but succeed as works of art because of the artist's openness and self-knowledge.

I was impressed by Fountain Valley's Anisa Hovemann's ambitious acrylic "Primordial Journey." It's not only competent, it's also big -- three feet by six feet, or thereabouts. It's difficult enough to paint well, but infinitely more so on a large scale. That's why most artists stick to the small stuff, particularly young artists.

Mark Riesterer, the son of noted local artists Ken and Tina Riesterer, is, as you might expect, a good painter, whose work belongs in this show. His peers in the exhibition range in age from 16 to 19; Mark's only 13. His still lifes, confidently modelled and showing a real sense of color and form, would do credit to a talented college student, let alone a middle schooler.

Samantha Grabowski's set of five altered photographs of female nudes is simply amazing. These are powerful, mature, incandescent works of art. They would be outstanding in any show, let alone in a show of young artists. They are, in my judgment, as good as anything in the Fine Arts Center's current juried show of contemporary regional art. I won't attempt to describe them, other than to say that anyone who cares about contemporary art ought to go see them.

In a telephone interview, Grabowski talked about her work and her vision. Incredibly, she's only been making art for a year or so. She'd been taking photographs since seventh grade, but, she says, she'd never thought of photography as art. All that changed with a visit to a Diane Arbus exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. She was amazed by Arbus's disturbing, emotionally charged images.

"I realized the potential of the medium," she said.

An international baccalaureate student at Palmer High School, Grabowski decided to study art with Floyd Tunson who, as well as a teacher at Palmer, is one of our finest local artists.

As her photographs show, Grabowski has a fully developed visual aesthetic. What Tunson gave her, clearly, was access to the technical tools that provided the means to realize her vision. I asked her how she created her exhibition prints.

"All of my artwork starts with a photograph," she said. "I took color photos, and changed them to black and white. That way, you lose a lot of contrast and values. Then I made photocopies, and enlarged them, four or five steps of enlargement. Then I finished them with an acrylic polymer medium and an acrylic wash, and then highlighted with gesso. I stretched them on frames like a painting."

Grabowski's ambition is formidable, born of a grounded theory in what makes up art.

"I think art is supposed to be an illusion that tricks the mind," she said. "I really like Picasso's quote: 'Art is a lie that makes us see the truth.' I hate it when people look at my pictures and say 'oh, it's teenage angst' -- I'm sick of teenage angst. That's not where I am."

Grabowski plans at attend CU-Boulder, at least for the next couple of years, though she's not certain what she will study.

"Maybe I'll be inspired by a great teacher," she said. "I don't know. ..."

Grabowski has other pieces in the show, one of which is a whimsical little sculpture comprised, in part, of railroad spikes. I asked her where she got them.

"Oh, you know, they're tearing up old rail lines in Colorado Springs, so you just walk along the line, and you find them. I really like them," she said.

It's a nice image -- this vastly talented, modern young woman fashioning art from the found debris of 19th-century Colorado Springs. Renewal, re-creation, rebirth -- these are the common themes not only of Samantha Grabowski's work, but of the whole exhibition. It's intelligent, energetic and overflowing with life. Miss it at your peril.

And finally, Wunderkind is a tribute to the quality of art instruction in some of our schools. We all know that art instruction in the public schools is underfunded, understaffed, and largely ignored by the political establishment. But these kids are marvelous artists who prove the point that art instruction enriches students' lives immeasurably, and their teachers deserve credit as well.

So thanks are due to Floyd Tunson, Michael Cellan, Jeff Brown, Chip Shaw, Noli Morath, Fran Nolan, Katrina Greene, and Felicia Kazmier. Your students enrich our lives.


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