Scholastic Program Works to Engage More Diverse Student Artists

Mar 13, 2015

"Mother and Child" by North Side High School senior Sawn Chan, won a gold key award in this year's regional Scholastic Art and Writing competition.
Credit Fort Wayne Museum of Art

The Scholastic Art and Writing program is the oldest source of recognition and scholarships for teen arts in the country. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Scholastic program boasts tons of national awards and has been recognized as one of the best in the country.

But it often takes parents, teachers, and other artists working together to help young creators succeed.

WBOI’s Virginia Alvino reports on the people and program aiming to get more students from diverse backgrounds to participate in the competition.

At the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, volunteers and staff are busy setting up their annual display of Scholastic Arts and Writing winners.

“There’s just so many pieces," says Max Meyer, "there’s 570 pieces of art, it’s unbelievable.” 

Meyer is Director of Children’s Education at the museum. He’s been running their Scholastic program for the past decade.

Fort Wayne’s program has grown over the years, and is now recognized as one of the best in the country. “The problem was is the schools that had lots of money and equipment and time, they kind of dominate the program,” says Meyer.

Meyer needed a way to engage inner city kids – the ones he says often need the inspiration, and scholarships from the program most of all.

“There are geniuses in inner city schools too," says Meyer. "And what I want to make sure is none of those geniuses slip through the cracks. I don’t want them to give up before they even tried.” 

So he turned to the roster of successful Scholastic alumni, who can relate to diverse backgrounds. Using affordable video conferencing technology, he programmed a series of meetings between artists and schools to create the pilot program - The Hope Gap.  

Last fall, a group of art students at South Side High School met, photographer Antonio Pulgarin.

He shared his background. He was born in Colombia, and raised in the projects in Brooklyn.

“Art wasn’t something that was like, a viable realistic dream," said Pulgarin to the students, "but I knew I wanted to be a creator.” 

The portfolio that won him a top national award in 2007 featured portraits of people from his neighborhood.

“If I could give you guys any sort of advice," he told the students, "is do not disregard your voice, I thought my voice didn’t matter, and I was completely wrong.” 

His biggest takeaway – if you’re even thinking about it, just submit.

Across town at North Side High School, art teacher Alan Woenker says lots of students put up resistance when he encourages them to submit pieces to competitions.

“For some reason when they’re kids, they make art, they don’t care what it looks like and they just make lots of it," says Woenker. "Somewhere around middle school they start to understand that well maybe I’m not as good as this person, it’s a confidence thing.”

The other issue he sees is lack of support, and exposure to the arts. Woenker says back when he won a Scholastic award, it spring boarded him to pursue art, and he wants that for his students, too.

“I tell em also, it’s not the end all be all either" says Woenker, "sometimes just because one person says your work’s not very good, doesn’t mean it’s not very good.” 

Last year his class received a talk from Scholastic alums. This year’s class had three winners. One so quiet and shy, she didn’t want to talk around her classmates, so we went into a closet.

Sawn Chan was born in Thailand. She entered Scholastic before, to no avail.

“I guess I really wasn’t that good," says Chan, "so I didn’t make it to Scholastic.” 

This year she said her teacher had to push her, but she won a top award for a drawing of herself as a young girl, with her mother.

Her classmate Lin Pehyoe also submitted last year, didn’t win. Resolute to improve, this year – it worked. He says he enjoyed the Hope Gap lecture.“They told me to be like, original, like go out your own way and make out your own stuff so it’s unique," says Pehyoe. 

Lastly, Pah The Heh, born in Laos, is a senior. He wants to be a tattoo artist one day. He’s happy to have his work on display at the museum this year, and has a clear memory of last year’s lecture. He says “itt was incredible, amazing, so incredible.” 

Max Meyer says South Side High School's award totals went from two last year to 20 this year. But he says those awards are about more than just recognition – a win can teach kids that they’re talented, could have a career in the arts, and develop a more global worldview.

“Widening that scope makes you think what my possibilities are as a human being, what is my potential," says Meyer.

Last year the Hope Gap Project focused on 4 schools –Meyer hopes to expand the list of schools and participating artists next year, and reach out to underserved rural students, too. 

The Scholastic exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art runs through April 12.