Drawing the art out of teenagers

What common experience did Robert Redford, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Joyce Carol Oates, and Richard Avedon share as teenagers?

All were winners of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, sponsored by children's

publisher Scholastic Inc. The awards program, now marking its 75th anniversary with an exhibition at the Equitable Gallery in New York City, is very familiar to high school teachers as the artistic version of the prestigious Westinghouse Science awards.

Yet its existence is not as well known to the public. "It's the most amazing untold story," says B.J. Adler, executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, the nonprofit that governs the awards.

The tale begins in 1923 when Scholastic founder M.R. Robinson wondered what philanthropic work he could do for American youths. He "discovered that a lot of things honor kids for athletic ability but nothing was done to honor kids for their minds and spirits," says Ms. Adler. To rectify that Mr. Robinson invited teenagers in central Pennsylvania, where his company was located, to submit paintings, photographs, essays, and short stories to be judged at a yearly contest.

Today the program receives about 250,000 submissions annually from seventh to 12th graders across the US. About 30,000 students receive "golden key" awards at the regional level, and 1,100 receive national awards, many of which qualify them for scholarships. They are honored at an annual ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. - this year on June 18 and 19 - while winning art works will be on display at the Corcoran Gallery.

The New York show, which runs through June 5, offers samples of art and writing done by past winners. The exhibit is organized around five topics that represent common themes in the creative work of young people, the organizers say. These include excellence; coping and growing; values and community; identity and the self; logic and ideas.

Maurice Berger, curator of the show and a senior fellow at New York's New School for Social Research, says visitors often express surprise at the range and depth of the talents of teenagers.

But the awards program is more than just a showcase for talent, he says. It's also a means of supporting creative expression and giving young people a channel for growth. Nurturing the artistic expression of teens is one way of recognizing that the arts "give the world so much life," says Mr. Berger.

Not all youthful creations are "pretty pictures" or "flowery poems," however, Adler says. Some submissions are dark and even violent. That's why, she says, it's so essential to provide an artistic outlet for teens and to take those efforts seriously.

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