ST. LOUIS — As a young boy living in a small West African village, Joseph Mbeh used to while away the time drawing cartoons. Now, as a recent graduate of an American high school, Mr. Mbeh's artwork is on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
His work is among 200 winning student artworks displayed through July 8 in the Scholastic Art Awards National Exhibition. Mbeh's art portfolio also brought a $5,000 scholarship allowing him to attend Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York next fall.
When Mbeh left his native Cameroon to join his mother in the United States, he brought along his dream of being an artist. His mother's vision of the American dream, however, was raising a doctor or a lawyer.
"My mother tried to discourage me from becoming an artist, and I certainly never thought I'd be making any money or winning any contests with my art," Mbeh says. "But I was motivated to keep doing it, and now my mother supports the idea."
Since 1923, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards have been motivating students to pursue careers in the creative arts. Students in Grades 7 through 12 submit their work in regional contests, and the winners go on to compete for awards and scholarships nationally.
The Scholastic competition is one of the oldest and largest contests for student writers and artists in the country. About 250,000 students nationwide participated this year in the regional contests, which are sponsored by local schools and businesses. From there, 14,000 artworks and 12,500 writing entries went on to the national competition.
The 1,000 national award winners received a total of $139,000 in cash awards and scholarships. This year's judges, including novelist Madeleine L'Engle and painter Philip Pearlstein, also nominated students for another $500,000 in scholarships from 60 participating colleges.
While student athletes and academic superstars receive recognition from many directions, artistic talent often flourishes quietly. Maurice Robinson, founder of Scholastic Inc., the classroom magazine publisher, established this contest more than 70 years ago to recognize student artists and writers.
"We are creating a context for young people to consider creativity as a way of life," says Susan Ebersole, executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, which administers the awards. "This program ... encourages the creativity of our secondary-school students during the formative years for their development of artistic and literary expression."
Through the years, a number of Scholastic award-winners have later become well-known for their artistic work. Writers Joyce Carol Oates and Truman Capote, photographer Richard Avedon, and actor Robert Redford all won awards as high-schoolers.
This year's winners may be receiving just the kind of recognition they need to continue their artistic pursuits. For Mbeh, the award is validating his goal to make a living as an artist.
"Everybody does what they think they have to do to survive nowadays," Mbeh says. "It's kind of odd to do what you love and want to do. To have people embrace that is an honest, true, fantastic gift."