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“The Art of Now” on View in the 2021 Scholastic Art Awards: Wisconsin Exhibition

This year marks the 45th year the Milwaukee Art Museum has hosted the Scholastic Art Awards: Wisconsin Exhibition.

Young woman looking at the screen with stick people drawings in the background holding hands
Victoria Fernandez, “We All Hold Hands,” 2020 (detail). Acrylic and watercolor. National American Visions Award and Gold Medal in Painting. Grade 12, Pius XI Catholic High, Milwaukee, Cathy Burnett, instructor.

This year marks the 45th year the Milwaukee Art Museum has hosted the Scholastic Art Awards: Wisconsin Exhibition, celebrating the artistic talent of students in grades 7–12 from across our state. Unlike in years past, the exhibition is entirely virtual, with more than two hundred works available for viewing through March 21, 2021.

Selecting the works to include in the annual Scholastic exhibition is a challenge in normal times. When twenty-nine arts professionals from across Milwaukee’s creative community gathered online in early January to judge the over 1,800 art submissions, they all agreed this exhibition of next-generation art felt more essential than ever.

As always, the judges considered each artwork solely on its own merit (without information on the student, educator, or school) in seventeen categories: Architecture & Industrial Design, Ceramics & Glass, Comic Art, Design, Digital Art, Drawing & Illustration, Editorial Cartoon, Expanded Projects, Fashion, Film & Animation, Jewelry, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture, and Senior Art Portfolios. Each panel of judges engaged in close examination of the entries and lively debate over which works exemplified Scholastic’s three core values: originality, technical skill, and the emergence of a personal vision or voice. Everyone shared a profound appreciation and respect for the extra work it took for students, and their heroic teachers, to complete submissions during a time of remote or hybrid learning and reduced access to studio spaces. In the end, the judges awarded 98 Gold Keys, 136 Silver Keys, and 284 Honorable Mention certificates. The artworks that received Gold Key and Silver Key awards are featured in the regional online exhibition; the artworks awarded a Gold Key will compete for Silver and Gold Medals at the national level, in New York.

The 234 artworks on view in the exhibition can truly be said to be the art of now. The work the students created over the past year captures this unique moment in our history and shows these young artists reflecting on their lives, their hopes and fears, what they most cherish, and how they are bearing witness to an unprecedented time. There are films about living in quarantine, images from Black Lives Matter protests, and responses to the climate crisis, alongside tender views of friends, studies of nature, and cutting-edge fashion.

One of the most challenging tasks for the judges each year is to nominate five works from across media categories for the American Visions Award medal, an award given at the national level for an outstanding artwork from each regional exhibition. The header image above features Wisconsin’s 2020 award recipient, Victoria Fernandez’s We All Hold Hands, and I am pleased to share the five nominees from this year’s exhibition for the 2021 American Visions Award here.

While these works were selected by five separate panels of judges, they all seem to share visceral connections to the psychological experience of living in a more isolated world: painting over one’s image in the mirror, photographing a masked child in a disorienting place, drawing (yes, that’s a drawing!) a boxed-in cat eager to get out, constructing a hat with crows circling overhead, and finishing a ceramic bowl with painted eyes looking heavenward. The art of now.

It is exciting to see this year’s young artists become part of the Scholastic legacy, a program that generations of artists credit for their start. (Andy Warhol famously wore his Gold Key pin well into his fifties!) They join generations of Scholastic Writing Awards alumni, too, including history-making Amanda Gorman, the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate and youngest known inaugural poet at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration.

Congratulations, 2021 Scholastic Art Awards: Wisconsin Exhibition artists! Thank you for so generously sharing your artwork as a source of beauty, inspiration, and hope for the future in your talented and resilient hands.

Amy Kirschke is Director of Adult, Docent, and School Programs. She works with a team of educators and more than 150 volunteer docents to deliver tours and programs for 50,000 students and more than 5,000 adults each year. At the Museum, you’ll find her facilitating docent training, coordinating gallery talks, and slowing down to take a closer look at art during Slow Art Saturdays.

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