The Seventh Annual East Tennessee Regional Student Art Exhibition is quite a mouthful—but that’s fitting for a show that opened at the Knoxville Museum of Art the day after Thanksgiving. Running through Jan. 13, it is a visual feast, clichés be damned. The space allotted for the exhibition practically bursts at the seams, an arrangement both chaotic and exhilarating. The astonishing variety of works displayed so close to one another can be frustrating to see, but eliminating pieces would prove difficult. Besides, viewers would miss some awesome art by an impressive number of students.
In collaboration with the East Tennessee Art Education Association, the museum presents approximately 500 pieces (culled from more than 1,500 submitted by public, private, and home-schooled students in 32 counties) encompassing a broad range of ideas as well as media. Among other things, the ages of artists are intriguing to consider, although notions of what a 6th-grade student—versus a 12th-grade student—can accomplish are quickly challenged; mature work has been produced on all levels. For the most part, the art on view is experimental when it comes to execution, and fearless in terms of subject matter. Ah, youth.
The exhibition includes videos, photography, package design, collage, printmaking, drawings, paintings, lighting, approximately 50 3-D pieces made from wood, wire, metal, textiles, marble, you name it—there’s even a guitar shaped like a turtle. If only labels cited the materials used. A binder with teachers’ bios, and perhaps statements describing their approach to teaching and the student projects they’ve initiated, would also be informative.
Videos on monitors in two galleries, despite lacking narrative sequence, nevertheless hold one’s interest—mostly due to sophisticated editing. Best Video winner Caroline Trotter, a senior at West High School, directs a mysterious gamine dressed in black, that familiar staple of student films. But expert shifts in scale and her use of light save her—never mind the traipsing amid trees and crumbling architecture.
Because the abundant paintings and drawings are, on the whole, exceptional, it hurts to limit descriptions. Younger artists have created work beyond their years and worthy of attention, whether it’s McCallie School 7th-grader Sawyer Lyons’ quirky insect made from a pine cone, leaves, and twigs; Vine Middle 6th-grader Aidyn Parkey’s psychedelic spider painting and classmate Richard Vautrin Hickam’s painstakingly constructed, gothic-looking collage; or West Valley 8th-grader Pedro Lima’s lizard in “Life and Death in the Desert.”
Joe Letitia’s printmaking students at Webb School have produced astonishingly skillful work. A striking pendant light titled “Sherbert,” made from plastic spoons by Bearden 11th-grader Kaitlinh Shelton and an Alice in Wonderland-inspired carved-out book in a black box titled “Follow Me” by Farragut 11th-grader Emelie Khalsa are in categories all their own.
Photography, both black-and-white and color, is strong; numerous images add to a thread running throughout the show referencing national identity. Fulton senior Chastity Hurst’s portrait of a man with a chest tattoo reading “In God We Trust” is quietly intense, whereas Red Bank senior Fred Matthews’ “Our Makeup,” showing hands of different skin colors and an American flag painted across arms, is playful yet bold.
Maryville High School senior Georgie McCarthy’s “City Lore,” a photo montage reminiscent of David Hockney, effectively fragments Gay Street, and a dynamic photograph by Grace Christian Academy senior Crue Smith captures a skateboarder in motion. Surprisingly original household images akin to Imogen Cunningham’s backyard shots feature reflections in spoons by Knoxville Catholic senior Olivia Ruane and a sink full of dishes by Greeneville High School junior Jake Thwing.
When money’s short, schools tend cut the arts first, which seems foolish, considering the many ways creativity fuels young minds; it’s as vital to education and brain development as academics. What’s more, if there’s anything a teenager needs, it’s an outlet for self-expression. This student exhibition should be mandatory for any school board members, politicians responsible for budgeting, school principals, even the governor. Why? Because it reminds us of the talent and spirit energizing so many schools in our region, given great teachers and the necessary materials and equipment. Because art provides a constructive break from left-brain activities. Because it’s a window allowing adults better understanding and communication with students. We all have, for many weeks to come, a chance to enjoy the creative efforts of young people. Without them, life would certainly be less interesting.