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Fine Arts Magnet School Challenges Young Talent

In the early 1970s, in an effort to consolidate funds and provide young people opportunities to channel their talents, many U.S. schools began "magnet" programs where like-minded students could join at a single center to study math or science, a foreign language or the performing and fine arts. The Visual Arts Center at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Maryland, is one of the oldest programs in the country to train budding artists. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

It's a few weeks before graduation, but Naima Merella is already celebrating. Her artwork is featured in the annual show of the Visual Arts Center, the magnet fine arts program housed at Albert Einstein High School. Reflecting back on her four years here she says, it was definitely worth it. "I have grown as an artist and surpassed what I thought I would be able to achieve."

The Visual Arts Center nurtures young talent. Artist Jane Walsh teaches the Center's 65 students, who must submit a portfolio for admission. "We are looking for students who are determined to become artists," Walsh says. "We have students who want to be filmmakers, animators, illustrators, graphic designers and interior designers, illustrators [and] painters."

Students from high schools throughout the county system attend the program and complete their academic studies to graduate. Jane Walsh says the work is rigorous and comprehensive. "Our program is very two-D [dimensional], very drawing and painting oriented, because whatever they become, we feel they want to have a classical training."

Walsh says students learn about color, theory and art history. "This [exhibition] is a culminating activity in some way for us as teachers to see the fruits of their labors and our labors at the end of the year."

When she came to Einstein, Naima Merella says she was a shy girl who loved to draw. Now, four years older and headed to art school on a scholarship, she brims with self-confidence. She says her teachers and peers helped her overcome artistic problems and take on new challenges like her recent "Swimmers Series," where she learned how look at light in a new way.

"I thought that the way water distorts the figure was really cool," she says. Naima likes what she produced, which also taught her different brush strokes. "It was really fun because with water you can make free strokes."

That sort of discovery doesn't just happen. It comes after a lot of hard work. Students here spend up to half their school day making art. They study art history and learn to paint and draw and experiment with oils and acrylics and watercolors.

Artist and teacher Michael Piechocinski says the emphasis in the first two years is on rules, art history, design and technique. "In the second two years, we encourage them to make educated choices and start to break those rules and start to break new ground in a creative way."

The outcome is a portfolio for college, which students begin to think about early on as they watch older classmates already engaged in the process. Aurora Aviles, 16, is working on her first large canvas, a self-portrait which instead of a likeness of her face is a painting of her clothes, an idea Piechocinski encourages her to develop as he critiques the work.

In another corner of the studio, Casey Drogin, 15, is putting the finishing touches on a still life that includes an alligator head and a large coffee cup arranged on a t-shirt. He struggles to get the lines and the rhythm and the color worked out, one problem at a time.

"The challenge I think most was getting the proportions right because that is very hard for me." Another was that the T-shirt wasn't actually purple, but he had to paint it that way. "We were supposed to use colors from other objects and kind of mix it around so that it makes it all unified."

Michael Piechocinski is delighted as he watches students like Casey Drogin accomplish the tasks he sets before them. He says every artist, no matter how young, reaches certain milestones in their work. "To be with that student when they discover that personal revelation that will change their life forever is very special to me." Piechocinski says that awareness is always going to be in their work. "They will carry that with them and build upon it."

This year's crop of Visual Arts Center graduates, much like those who have gone before them, have won local, state and national awards, been juried into art shows, and awarded scholarships for college. Their teachers say the secret is in the kids themselves who grabbed an opportunity and ran with it.