Talented teen artists thrive at the VAC

Miriam StevensMiriam Stevens

Miriam Stevens’ parents have a picture of her as a toddler, sitting in a high chair.

She’s not eating—she’s drawing.

“I loved to draw from an early age, and I couldn’t wait for summer art camp.”  But it wasn’t until high school—and the rigorous training she got at the Visual Arts Center (VAC) in Kensington—that Miriam knew becoming a professional artist was a real possibility.

Although some were a little older before becoming art-obsessed, students like Miriam tend to gravitate towards Einstein High School’s VAC.  It’s the only Montgomery County program for high school students who are strongly motivated to be artists.

On April 20 and 21 the VAC at held its annual show of drawings, paintings, photographs, and mixed media created by the 74 students enrolled in the rigorous four-year program.  Senior Lauren Poor’s oversized portraits use expressionistic color and wild brush strokes.  Aaron Kuhn’s paintings of people communicating confront the viewer.  Quiet, meditative drawings by Seung Eun Lee encourage reflection.  A carefully rendered stinkbug by Joel Munoz shows mastery of scientific illustration.

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Scientific illustration by VAC student Joel Munoz.

Having so many talented artists all around her was intimidating for Stevens as an underclassman. “It makes everyone work harder,” she said, “and at first it seems like you’re competing. But after a while you realize, we all have things to teach each other.”

There have been life lessons too.  “I also learned from my quirky artist friends that being different is okay,” said Stevens.   Having the confidence to be different was critical to her success as one of few
females competing on Einstein’s wrestling team.

The VAC program, begun 25 years ago by Maryland artist Tom Kozar, has an enviable record.  Its students go on to some of the most prestigious art schools in the country.  In the past ten years, 20 VAC graduates have been named “Maryland Distinguished Scholars” and seven were finalists in a competition sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.

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Miguel Lopez. VAC senior, poses in front of his artwork at the Einstein Art
Show.

Current VAC Director Michael Piechocinski (“Mr. P” to his students) and fellow teacher Jane Walsh are passionate about the program.  “We’re both painters who live and breathe our art,” said Mr. P.  He’s been the VAC Director for 12 years.  During his tenure, over $18 million in scholarships have been awarded to VAC students.  Ms. Walsh has also made VAC the cornerstone of her career, devoting 10 years to the program.

The majority of VAC students will go on to fine arts schools, at places like Rhode Island School of Design, Maryland Institute of College Art or Cooper Union.  Some will end up in B.A./B.F.A programs, like senior Claire Baldwin of Takoma Park—who will pursue a joint degree at Temple University this fall.

Parent Yeun Kang, whose daughter Jennifer Kang is a senior in the VAC said, “I just listened to her strong desire to do art, and that led us to the VAC. It gives her a unique opportunity to explore many different types of art before she goes to college.  This is her life now.  She’s going to Carnegie Mellon to study graphic design.”

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Painting by VAC student Seung Eun Lee.

In the sixth grade at Rock View Elementary, Kensington student Miguel Resendiz “dreamed of being a super-hero cartoon artist.”  Middle school teachers helped him build a portfolio to compete for a place in the VAC.  While at VAC, Miguel also pursued his interest in the performing arts as part of Einstein’s Latino dance group.  Resendiz exemplifies the VAC student who, in Mr. P’s words, “has learned to take risks, and leaves here equipped to do anything.”

Much of the show focused on 22 seniors, who each had their own “stall” and a large body of work to show off. But Walsh also encouraged visitors to look at the work done by underclassmen, over 350 pieces.  “Perhaps most exciting for me is to see the progress — where they start and how far they can go.”

Resendiz reflects on the student experience this way: “In 9th and 10th grade you learn the basics of drawing and design.  But in 11th and 12th grade, they let go of your hand, and give you the freedom to find your own voice.”

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VAC senior Lauren Poor took the photographs that accompany this article.

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About the Author

sandymoore
Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.