Nature inspires at the student Art of Conservation exhibit

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It was one of those spectacular late spring–early summer afternoons that makes everything on the Island sparkle when I walked into the Vineyard Conservation Society’s (VCS) art opening in the lobby of the M.V. Film Center. Thirteen MVRHS students’ artworks brought parents, friends, judges, and VCS representatives inside for a reception and award ceremony.

“In the spring of 2014, the VCS launched a new annual tradition, ‘The Art of Conservation’— an art contest for Vineyard high school students to contemplate and express their connection to nature,” said Samantha Look, head of education and youth programming at VCS. “For students, this may not be something they have even thought about before. VCS sees the contest as a great way to get students thinking about the environmental issues that our community faces, and as a prompt to get them outside, connecting with the natural world, whether through an organized field trip with us, or on their own time, exploring to create work for the contest.”

Eleventh grader Skyla Harthcock, 17, explained her photograph “Shadow.” The photograph is an extreme close-up of a yellow leaf that stands at attention, with another smaller leaf’s shadow seeming to creep up it, creating a mysterious image.

“This is at Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary, where we went with VCS,” Skyla says. “Sitting there in one spot really opened my eyes to all the little things that you don’t notice when you are walking and taking pictures.”

The imposing swan in 15-year-old ninth grader Kenneth Cook’s sizable photograph gets up-close and personal with the viewer. “Yeah, he came right up like he was checking me out,” Cook says. The bird looks proprietary of the beach, and its wild nature is more than apparent and contrasts with the human-made tire tracks crisscrossing the sand behind him.

Fourteen-year-old freshman Emily De Souza said she intends to pursue art. Given her artist statement, it is no surprise how intimate her extreme close-up of a luscious blooming flower feels. “Photographing small things, especially flowers, keeps me focused on school, and it is my escape from the world when everything is going crazy,” Emily says. “Plants and nature have an amazing energy that is able to free my mind from things that make me unhappy.”

The back of a beat-up abandoned Volkswagen fairly bulges out toward us in 17-year-old 11th grader Jenaleigh Griffin’s black-and-white photograph, “Preserve the Trust.” Weeds grow in and out and around the automobile with the words “Preserve the Trust” ironically printed on the license plate. She tells me, “I thought that I should take a picture of it and connect how we should be preserving our environment, and how we’re not doing that and just destroying our earth.”

The tips of four large triangles meet in the center of 17-year-old 11th grader Indigo Giambattista’s abstract painting “Unspoken.” The top and bottom triangles contain more colored triangles that increase in size as they echo the overall shape. The two converging horizontal triangles are a solid steel grey, which, she says, “doesn’t really fit the natural world, and the black hole in the middle is meant to represent the earth.” Giambattista writes in her artist statement, “Sometimes we tend to forget what the natural colors of the earth can offer us. As humans we pollute the earth with foreign, unnatural colors.”

Look told me more about the collaborative program: “We have teamed up with different Island artists to come in and show the students their work and discuss how they might approach the theme. As part of the collaboration with the artists, we take classes on field trips to further explore the theme, and begin making some work for the contest. This year, painter Susie White and photographer Melissa Knowles were the guest artists who helped out. The work is judged by a panel of three who consider professionalism, creativity, and connection to the theme among the criteria for judging. This year there are 12 students recognized by the judges, and one award given by the VCS staff. Students receive $100 for first prizes and $15 gift cards for Special Distinction and the VCS pick. The VCS selection is also used in one of our publications — often the cover of our next newsletter.”

All of the work is exhibited in the Feldman Family Artspace at the M.V. Film Center thanks to the generosity of Richard Paradise, who said he fully supports the effort. “We have had this collaboration with VCS since day one,” Paradise says, and tells me that Featherstone Center for the Arts manages the gallery space and hangs the show.

Look credits MVRHS Art Department chair and photography teacher Chris Baer as being instrumental over the years, along with drawing teacher Tiffiney Shoquist. Entries were judged by Monina von Opel, curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital art collection; Cindy Kane, celebrated local artist; and Phil Wallis, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Prizes were won by Jenaleigh Griffin, Julianne Joseph, and Kyle Peters for their photographs, and Indigo Giambattista and Anabelle Cutrer for their paintings. Special Distinctions were awarded to Rhanna De Oliveira, Kaleb Hatt, Anna Graham, Emma Van Lohuizen, Thea Keene, Kenny Cook, and Skyla Harthcock. The staff at VCS also selected an additional favorite, a photograph by Emily De Souza.

Joan Malkin, vice president of the VCS, facilitated the awards ceremony, and told me, “The students who are going to get prizes think they’re excited; it pales in comparison to mine. I think this is one of the most exciting things we do on the Island. It is so great to tie these kids into the future of preserving our Island and watching them get celebrated.”

The Art of Conservation exhibit will hang at the M.V. Film Center’s Feldman Family Artspace for a couple of more weeks, so be sure to stop by and see the students’ artwork.