Three futures shining with promise

Marylanders among top 10 young writers and artists in U.S.

June 19, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Lauren Whaley might wring her hands nervously. Christopher Fitzwater will cringe at the hoopla. And Lesley McTague is sure to blush at the accolades.

But for all their self-effacement, Whaley, Fitzwater and McTague have reason to be proud. At the Kennedy Center in Washington tonight, the three Maryland teen-agers will receive Gold Portfolio Awards, recognizing them for being among the top 10 young writers or artists in the nation.

Whaley's poetry and the paintings of Fitzwater and McTague were selected from 250,000 entries for the 1999 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, which honor achievements in writing, photography, painting and design by students in grades seven through 12.

The recognition, plus $5,000 and a chance to display their work in an anthology or at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, has overwhelmed the three teen-agers. Robert Redford, Andy Warhol and Sylvia Plath preceded them as winners.

They never anticipated such a triumph.

"There were two other girls in my class who are very good writers, and I just imagined that they'd win," said Whaley, 18, who graduated recently from Towson High School. "I didn't consider myself up to their standard."

McTague, also 18, of Cockeysville stammers when she contemplates the rush of seeing her paintings at the Corcoran. "It's such a huge honor," she said.

The glory didn't come without sacrifice, long hours that kept the three away from friends, sequestered in studios or secret places where they unleashed their talents in paint or ink.

For Whaley, time with her journal is like a salve. She wanders into the woods or snuggles up in the cocoon of her sleeping bag and jots down thoughts.

Her early literary efforts depicted unicorns and talking pencils, but her penchant for fantasy was crushed when her mother, Sharon Dwyer, was killed in a plane crash in 1997 on Cape Cod.

In a poem called "The Graveyard," Whaley explores her mother's mortality: "These were once people, now stones, rows and rows and rows of marble and stone and statues of angels and crosses, stuck in the ground, like my mom."

Her work is filled with mournful homages. But writing about her mother's death helps Whaley deal with her loss.

"It's almost been a year now. I still cry some nights driving home, or passing by Mom's house, or just looking at how my hands resemble hers. But at least I can accept my grief. I realize that it's OK to feel this way. I remind myself that I am allowed to feel drained. No one else knows what it is like to read a passage from a book, given to me by my mom, at her funeral."

Whaley, who will attend Bowdoin College in Maine, wants to read that passage, taken from a 1998 essay she wrote about her mother's funeral, at the awards ceremony.

She has never read the piece aloud and doing so in front of a crowd will take great self-control.

"I hope I can get up the courage to read it," she said. "But if I start to cry, I'll just pick something else."

`It's my gift'

Fitzwater never painted until October, when friends persuaded him to sign up for a studio art class.

"I didn't really think about it, it just happened," said the 18-year-old Poolesville High School graduate, with a shrug.

Classroom exercises helped Fitzwater learn the "way bones hold skin and how skin holds color," he said. Some nights, after partying until 2 a.m. in Georgetown, he retreats to his family's basement, with library books about Salvador Dali and Rembrandt.

"They're like my favorite kind of music," he said. "Dali was a spiritual genius. He had it."

What Fitzwater calls his "masterpiece," a moody interpretation of Michelangelo's "Pieta," which depicts Jesus, limp and on the verge of death, draped across Mary's lap, hangs on a basement wall, next to his father's hunting trophies.

"It was nerve-racking to paint," Fitzwater said, looking at his work. "I was up till 5 a.m."

For the contest, Fitzwater submitted three self-portraits. He marvels at facial expressions: the play of mirth, perceptiveness and surprise.

"He could be another John Singer Sargent if he wanted," said his art teacher, W. Michael Bartman III, referring to the American artist who painted wealthy debutantes and captains of business.

Fitzwater, who will attend Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, said he has no choice but to paint.

"It's my gift and the thing I know how to do," he said. "I'm going to keep doing it."

Family relationships intrigue McTague, whose father, mother and 12-year-old twin brothers serve patiently as models.

"I have to barter with my brothers and sometimes we get in fights," McTague says, giggling. "They'll say, `Lesley, we're trying to watch TV, leave us alone.' "

Working in oil and charcoal, McTague has captured the boys and her parents, creating pieces that evoke human drama.

`She's incredible'

"She's incredible," said Joe Giordano, McTague's teacher and head of the art department at Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson. "She will go all the way. She is an exceptional kid."

Giordano compares McTague's talent to that of Caravaggio, a 17th-century Italian master who focused on light, from a window or oil lamp, and captured fine detail in face and figure.

"I do believe I'll always be faithful to the human figure," said McTague, who also will attend Maryland Institute. "I love to capture personality and individual beauty."

McTague, who enjoyed drawing "pretty girls with big doey eyes" as a child, grew into oil painting. It wasn't until her senior year that she decided to become a painter.

"The movement and gesture of mark-making is a full body dance exercising all my muscles," she wrote in her contest application. "I attack it aggressively, driven by an adrenaline rush of pure mental and physical concentration. It sounds torturous and honestly, at times it is. I create art because I must."

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