High school students capture arts awards

National contest honors teens' photos, other works


Jimmy Costigan captured moving skateboards in colorful blurs. Jessy Griswold photographed children from El Salvador playing and at school.

Michelle Alpert shot close-ups of scars.

"I have a scar on my shoulder, and I know that sometimes I feel self-conscious about it, and so I wanted to explore how other people felt about theirs," said Alpert.

Costigan, Griswold, and Alpert are classmates at Towson High School, and they were recently recognized by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. In all, six photography students from the school - and more than 20 other county students working in a variety of art forms - were saluted for their work as part of the foundation's annual talent search.

The list of award winners includes, as in years past, several students from the Carver Center for Arts and Technology, a magnet school for the arts. Last year, the school had an unprecedented seven national finalists in the visual arts competition, and this year two photography students and a graduate from the school were "Level I" finalists.

But Towson High School, with about 1,400 students, has also been well-represented in the competition in recent years.

"We're very familiar with the Towson High program," said Vivian Orndorff, director of programs for the NFAA. "It's a stellar program."

Linda Popp, coordinator of art for Baltimore County Public Schools, said some students who don't commit to a magnet school still develop as artists.

"Through the process at a comprehensive school, they find that this is what they want to do," she said.

The photography classroom at Towson High is designed to encourage creativity. Windows running across the length of a wall are covered in black paper with a tiny square cut out, like a camera's viewfinder. The other three walls are covered with prints.

None of the students' photos looks like another, which makes their teacher, Juan Castro, proud.

"Success to me, is when you can't tell that all of the work is from the same school. There is no `Towson style,'" said Castro, who has been teaching art at Towson for six years. "This very process is holistic in nature. It's a process of self-reflection, and discovery of self, and one's self to the world."

Castro, who is also a freelance photographer, frames assignments around questions, such as: "If you were struck blind tomorrow, what photograph would you leave with us that would share with us how you see the world?"

Students attribute a large part of their success to Castro's teaching style.

"He treats us like adults, and he helps us look inside of ourselves to find the art. He wants it to come from us. He teaches us to show what we're thinking," said Griswold, a 17-year-old senior who won a merit award from the NFAA, meaning she finished in the top 5 percent of applicants.

Towson High students Katie Kookogey, Alex Lorenzen and Zachary Merrick also won merit awards for photography. Costigan, the student who photographed skateboards in action, was awarded an honorable mention.

Towson senior Pilar Diaz received a merit award in the visual arts category and Towson graduate Nicolette Vestrich-Shade received a merit award in novel writing.

Other Baltimore County public high schools whose students were honored by the NFAA are Franklin High School, Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, Dulaney High School and Hereford High. Students from the private Calvert Hall College High School and St. Paul's School also won awards.

Alpert, who photographed the scars, was one of 160 students from across the country selected from an entry pool of more than 6,000 to be an NFAA Arts Recognition and Talent Search finalist. After spending a week in Miami at the NFAA headquarters, she received a $3,000 cash prize that she plans to put toward a new laptop.

In her entry to the NFAA competition, she submitted a series of color photographs of human scars. The scars are on a variety of body parts including a stomach, legs and Alpert's own shoulder. Beside each picture, she placed the model's thoughts on their scars in their own handwriting.

She says she is best able to express her ideas and opinions through photography.

"You can write them down or paint them ... but it's just what I love to do," she says.

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