Student art pieces create community discussion around difficult conversations

Madison Parola, Co-Editor-In-Chief


  The advanced art students set up a “Pop-Up” art show in the C-Wing during the last week of February where they displayed forty student art pieces.

These art pieces– several shown at the Illinois High School Art Exhibition where they earned awards– ranged from photographs to paintings to drawings, all representing the artists’ thoughts on modern-day social concerns.

In an emailed statement to the school staff, the art department stated, “This is a unique opportunity for our students to share their personal views on a huge variety of topics that are not often discussed openly in school. We have encouraged the students to select topics that are extremely important to them personally.”

This art show obtained its goals of encouraging dialogue within our school, as the visuals clearly spoke to the concepts of equity and empathy–something the school community has been working on addressing the past two years.

While the “Pop-Up” show had many unique and eye-opening pieces, one that stood out was senior Brian Hernandez’s piece.

This untitled art piece was simple yet complex. It depicted a figure with a bucket on his back walking in the rain. The farther he walked, the more the bucket filled up until it became too heavy to hold. But after pouring out the bucket, the figure got back up again and kept on walking through the rain.

“The topic that I did was based upon connections…. Throughout my life, I’ve had people that I thought cared about me, and in reality, those were the people who were pushing me down,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been let down, humiliated, and even used by people who ‘cared’ about me, and I wanted to show this message to people having the same problem.”

His topic reflected what a lot of students face in high school regarding their relationships, and it was important for Hernandez to portray this issue through his art.

“Holding on to the past is a very difficult thing to deal with, especially in life,” Hernandez wrote in a statement that accompanied his work. “If it were to be mistakes, bad judgments, friendships, relationships, or something else, holding on could eventually drag you down. In this case, for this piece, that was my main focus.”

The artwork done by Hernandez demonstrated that we all deal with aspects in our lives that weigh us down, but his message encouraged his viewers to let go and to get rid of any negativity that is holding us back in our lives.

“Usually when people continue holding on to unnecessary things, the pressure tends to build up,” Hernandez said.  “Yes, those events happened, but you can simply continue your path by letting it [go] rather than letting it latch on to you.”

Like Hernandez’s piece, other pieces addressed such issues as stress, mental illness and gender role expectations, and another piece that had students stopping in the hallways was done by senior Emma Aculado.

Her work titled “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is a very powerful quote that can quickly grab students’ attention. In Aculado’s piece, this quote aims to call attention to the extent young girls will go to in order to feel socially accepted.

For her digital photo class project, Aculado used her friend Celeste Wilson, senior, as a model. In the first photo for the piece, Wilson is sitting with her face in her hands in front of a plate that is filled with make-up products. In the second photo, Wilson is in the same setting holding a small mirror. Both photos have the quote above the subject’s head with the word “skinny” bolded. Bolding the word “skinny,” put emphasize on what Aculado was trying to get across. There is also a picture of a scale that says “not light enough.”

In Aculado’s summary of the piece, she stated that she was trying to show how the model is consuming beauty products in an attempt to reach societal standards, instead of food, which is also an indication of starvation.

This piece is important because it addresses topics like eating disorders that are often not talked about, and a piece like this can open up the discussion. It shows that often people focus on their appearance and weight rather than on their mental and physical well-being. Instead of ignoring the issue, we need to bring attention to it– as Aculado’s piece did.

Senior Angela Kordik’s oil painting piece also stood out as a conversation starter.

Her picture depicted a young girl with a mouth guard who was supposed to be on a football team with other young girls in the background as cheerleaders.

She followed up the piece with the explanation “that women and girls can do any sport that men and boys play, including football and hockey.”

The way Kordik portrayed the image with the girl smiling sold the message that girls can do anything boys can and can enjoy themselves while doing it.

Like this painting, most of the artwork focused on current controversial subjects with societal effects that can be seen right now, but senior Arthur Thompson’s piece differed because it spoke of effects to come if the subject isn’t tackled now.

His painting depicted a future scenario in which Disney World is struck by a wave of seawater because of climate change resulting in rising sea levels.

A realistic Cinderella’s castle featured in the piece is the focal point, a recognizable symbol of the theme park, beneath a murky green sky. The colors used in this piece create a disturbing contrast– the brightness of the castle with the cold tones of the water.

The unsettling reality of the most “magical place on earth” underwater due to Florida’s low elevation and rising sea levels brings to mind how devastating the issue may become for future generations. Seeing this issue addressed is exciting because it’s our generation that has the potential to make a change for our future. That change will only occur, though, if we spread awareness about the true danger it poses to many places on earth– no matter how magical they currently seem.

Another art piece that shined light on a science-related issue brought the focus of conversation back to the school.

Senior Megan Rastrelli’s three photos showed the drastic difference between the funding for STEM classrooms and art rooms. She compared the corner of a wall, a sink drain and cabinets. One side showed the pristine white labs with organized cabinets and shiny clean sinks in contrast to the other side that showed messy cabinets with supplies thrown about, a clogged sink drain and a rundown corner with a towel to plug up leaks.

Rastrelli’s choice to align the pictures perfectly with each other instead of a wide shot of the rooms as a whole emphasized how similar these two places are and yet how different.

Another good choice was to use photos instead of an alternative medium because it presents the problem as realistically as possible. This piece was not inspired by some abstract concept; it’s a real-world issue that’s happening in schools right now.

“The reason why I decided to do this project is because, personally, I find it very hard to approach people and tell them what needs to be fixed in the school,” Rastrelli said in an interview. “I find it much easier to express my thoughts through art.”

Rastrelli added, “My intentions were to raise awareness to the different treatment and resources of these classrooms. The art room is falling apart, and while it has its charm, it needs renovation. Not many people are brave enough to venture down to the art room, so I thought I’d bring it to one of the most traveled hallways in our school: the STEM wing.”

Senior Angela David also used photography to address concerns around everyday activities–activities which should be defined as normal, but instead, for young women, can be defined as uncomfortable.

The everyday activity David shot for this piece was getting gas. Her three photos are of a girl filling up her car at a local gas station, but the different angles around her show how exposed the subject feels with different men watching her or lurking nearby.

These photos display a level of vulnerability that is rarely discussed, but these shots were real, authentic and original. The darker color scheme within the photos created a threatening mood that many girls could relate to.  

   Another effective art piece was created by Junior Eva Tejeda. The personal backstory of her piece also made it more touching.

The painting resembled one outstretched hand giving another smaller and more petite hand an orange. While the painting was in black and white, the orange fruit provided a touch of color–a touch of warmth.

Tejeda’s Oma lived in Germany in the aftermath of WWII when American troops were stationed there to help rebuild the country. The painting resembles an actual moment when an American soldier, the hand on the right, offers Tejeda’s grandmother an orange, a rarity and a treat.

“[The soldier] gave her an orange, which she had never seen before, and ironically, would never eat because she wanted to preserve the orange forever,” Tejeda wrote in a statement beside the piece.

The black and white tone of the painting can be taken to represent the hard and dismal times after the war while the colored orange resembles a moment of light in dark times. Such contrasts showcase how touching and impactful a small act of kindness can be in someone’s life.

“The only color in the piece is the orange, to show how something so small and insignificant can bring life in the midst of so much death,” Tejeda wrote.

Senior Heather Avis also addressed how we treat each other in her piece called “Equality,” which she created for her digital photo design class.

The photo contained an image of junior Ryan Wilson, who is African-American, trying to make a difference in her world. In order to make this piece meaningful, Avis chose to produce a black and white image except for Wilson’s African-inspired shirt. The word “Equality” was also displayed in the background of the photo to promote this idea.

Avis said, “I made my piece about equality because it is clear that our society is not equal, and there needs to be a change to improve the life of not only African-Americans but also other ethnicities. My intentions for the piece was to highlight the roots of where the model came from and show what the group as a whole wants, which is equality.”

Through color and word, Avis strove to make an abstract concept more concrete as a call-to-action to her viewers.

“I think it is important for students to see this piece because I think that a lot of people think the world is fine how it is because people are more equal than they were 10 years ago, but there are still little things that people don’t notice that make others feel unequal, and I just wanted to point that out– that people still need to be seen as our equals,” Avis said.

Another piece that came across as a call-to-action was produced by junior Stephanie Botello, who focused on an issue gaining national attention–school shootings.

Botello expressed this issue in a photo that displays five MHS students of different ethnic backgrounds on their knees in front of lockers with their hands up. Each of their hands contain one red letter that together spells out “Don’t shoot.”

What was most striking, though, was that the photo was black and white, except for blood-red lettering on the subjects’ hands.

By drawing attention to those words, Botello raised awareness for an issue that affects all groups of people of all ethnicities and backgrounds from every single community.

Another heated national discussion– the U.S.-Mexico border wall– became the subject of the piece by junior Mextli Garcia, who incorporated both the Spanish and English language into her political commentary.

Her painting depicts a brick wall with a few bricks removed and the face of U.S. President Donald Trump peeking through, yelling the phrase, “It’s just another brick in the wall.”

Yet, on the wall, Garcia displayed the ‘Hecho en Mexico’ logo, instilling a sense of cultural pride into the work.

The work became even more emotional and heartfelt with Pink Floyd lyrics “Show love” displayed in a dripping red heart.

In a statement next to the piece, Garcia wrote, “The Pink Floyd lyrics show how dumb the wall is because regardless of how it’s built, people will still find a way to get over it. The big red heart displays the phrase ‘show love’ in both English and Spanish to demonstrate that hate will get you nowhere.”

Such pieces became meaningful ways for students to have insightful conversations about controversial topics important to those in this school community.  The Mustang staff applauds the talented artists who had the courage to participate in this “Pop-Up” art show, which gave our community a chance to address some of the concerns captured in the artwork.