Pen, Paint, and Pride

Four students, national medalists in the prestigious Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, explore their identities as artists and writers.

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Caitlin Yeung

“People often say, a way to connect to people is through food. I completely agree with that,” said Caitlin Yeung. “My piece, 9:00 A.M. Acceptance, is about accepting and feeling proud of my culture through food.”

Bronx Science students won big in the 2020 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Four students — Caitlin Yeung ’20, Julia Sperling ’21, Olivia Lee ’22, and I — earned national medals, while many others won regional awards. 

Established in 1923, the prestigious annual Awards celebrate teen artists and writers from across the country. This year, over 110,000 students submitted nearly 320,000 works of art and writing to the Awards under different categories. Only 3,000 of those works won national medals. Judges, luminaries in the visual and literary arts, searched for originality, technique, and the emergence of a personal voice or vision, finding an abundance of those elements in the Bronx Science students’ work. 

The students echoed a sense of surprise, elation, and gratification upon discovering their awards. The innocent tendency to underestimate oneself strongly shows itself in Bronx Science’s artists. In March, Yeung checked the Scholastic website to find a glaring purple screen. It announced that 9:00 A.M. Acceptance, her piece about coming to terms with her heritage, won a national medal. She was in disbelief. “Right after, a bolt of excitement sprung out. I couldn’t help but jump around and smile non-stop for 2 hours straight!” she said.

Although young, the students are aware of their responsibilities as artists. Their creative work was a tool to express and explore themselves: their identities, thoughts, opinions, emotions. For Sperling, writing is a personal learning experience. “One of my teachers once told me that we write the best poetry when we surprise ourselves by the end of it,” she said. At the same time, she draws from her own life, trying not to force anything. “I feel like a phony if I try to write about something that I have not experienced.”

Sperling won a medal in poetry, one of the subcategories. Her poem, “Self-portrait as cherub,” is about her experiences with religion and loss of innocence. “The poem is a sort of letter to my younger self, almost a eulogy to her naivety. It felt very natural to write because my real experiences inspired it,” she said. Even so, her poetry inevitably touches on universal themes. “One of my favorite things about poetry is that it strengthens the human condition. You read someone else’s work and absorb their experience, their emotion, their perspective.” 

Yeung echoes the effect of collective representation in creating personal art. “Art is a platform for my voice, but in it, I also feel a sense of duty to my community and society,” she said.

“As an artist, I think one of our jobs is to be able to help people feel,” Yeung continued. Her sister was speechless when she first saw 9:00 A.M. Acceptance. Memories of “her family dinners with our grandma, participation in the annual Flushing Dragon Boat Race came rushing back. My artwork reminded her of when she finally started accepting her culture and its tradition,” said Yeung. Seeing how others responded to her artwork made her “realize how powerful art is. It truly is an honor to create things that make a difference.”

Being awarded a national medal from such a prestigious competition empowers students to keep on pursuing underlooked passions. “With such a busy schedule mixed with a STEM-focused school, I often feel discouraged from writing. Either I am too tired, or I feel like I have nothing significant to say,” reflected Sperling. “My Scholastic award reminds me that I do have a passion for writing and that others are generous enough to recognize that.”

Lee didn’t expect her sculpture, Sensual, to do well in the competition either. She thought it was too freakish to have common appeal. “All of my art teachers, friends, and family members [thought] it was a little creepy or messed up,” she explained. But the award helped her push away her self-doubt. “To me, the Scholastic Award [shows] what I’m making isn’t ‘messed up’ as I thought it was. Rather, it’s a form of art that a lot of people actually appreciate.” It gave her pride, encouraging her to continue making art that was uniquely hers. 

Yeung’s Scholastic award represents hope. She said, “it’s amazing to see the journey of creating my art. I feel accomplished when I witness a few materials—canvas, paper, soft pastels, and oil paints—transform into symbols, feelings, and ideas. Seeing my hard work and effort pay off reminds me to keep pushing through challenges.”

Despite our misleading name, the arts flourish at Bronx Science. Our 6 Pulitzer Prize-winning alumni might never be mentioned as often as our 8 Nobel Prize-winners. Still, creativity is a powerful and active force within the school community. Student art adorns all of the hallways thanks to the S.O. Every year, Dynamo curates its namesake literary magazine, a beautiful fusion of poetry, short stories, and photography. The 2020 Scholastic Awards are just the newest addition to our artistic community’s legacy.

Interviews have been edited for clarity with the interviewees’ permission.

Olivia Lee
Olivia Lee’s intention with Sensual, her sculpture, was to immerse the viewer by evoking touch. “I wanted to give the viewers a sensory experience. Ideally, they could just sit, rest their arms, and feel around the area,” she said.
Olivia Lee
Lee got the idea for Sensual from a found object. She found an old sewing desk chair missing an armrest at her studio. “Then, I decided to make an arm rest—literally—and it turned out really well, so I added the fingers and ears. The whole project was based on a pun that I found funny,” said Lee.
Olivia Lee
Lee started Sensual in the summer and worked on it until the December deadline. She made the ears, fingers, and arm from her own molds. “All 144 fingers are of “different shapes, positions, and sizes,” she said.
Kate Reynolds
Julia Sperling advises budding artists to be patient. “Creativity does not deliver on a schedule. Sporadically writing does not make you less of a writer. I still struggle with believing this myself, but I think it’s very important to hear especially as busy students,” she said.
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