Courtesy of Illinois High School Art Exhibition

On Sunday, February 26, the airy interior of the Zhou B Art Center hummed with activity. Student artists mingled with peers, parents, and school staff in a showcase of the state’s best artwork by high school students. This was the general exhibition for the Illinois High School Art Exhibition (IHSAE), thrown every year at the Bridgeport gallery by an association of Illinois art teachers to recognize the state’s outstanding student artists.

Standing near his first prize-winning entry in the photography section, a surreal homage to the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz, Mario Garnello, a senior at Lake Park High School in the western suburbs, conveyed the exhilaration, surprise, and sense of possibility shared by many of the exhibit’s participants.

“It feels really good,” he said. “This is actually the first art show I’ve ever done. I’ve never entered one. I’ve never won one. So this was all new to me.”

Just being selected for inclusion was an honor for the hundreds of students whose pieces made it into the show. Teachers from across the state chose their classrooms’ best work for selection by the IHSAE. Extra bragging rights were conferred to sixty-six students who received IHSAE awards (amounting to over $15,000 total in cash and prizes), seventy-seven students offered Early College Scholarships (totaling over $150,000), and 200 offered college tuition scholarships expected to total over thirty million dollars this year.

This year’s event was poignant for its contrast with recent cuts to arts funding in schools and programs across the state.

“Education funding in Illinois has become such a concern that even school leaders who acknowledge the importance of the fine arts feel like they have no other option [than to cut budgets],” said Christopher Sykora, Assistant Director of the IHSAE Board. In Illinois, where state senate president John Cullerton has called school funding reform the “defining crisis of our time” and Chicago’s school board is suing Governer Bruce Rauner over unfair allotment of state funds, nonprofits like the IHSAE are poised to play a central role in fostering the careers of young artists. But even the privately financed IHSAE may have a rocky road ahead. The group just completed a grant application with the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency the Trump administration is threatening to axe.

But the group will persevere, Sykora contends: “Artists are always innovatively responding and adapting to their environment.” Already the IHSAE is stepping up with its first-ever Teacher Grant, awarded to South Side elementary teacher and art therapist Rochele Royster. She will use the award to expand her heART Project, which encourages students to craft dolls for victims of gun violence in Chicago.

The student work at IHSAE showcased the talent of Illinois student artists. The gallery featured a cinematic photograph of a shotgun house enveloped by a light-polluted Milky Way; a dynamic shot of bronzed toast leaping from a toaster; meter-long cocoons lit from within through slits. The really arresting pieces included a Trump-themed Monopoly game featuring electoral votes for sale; a portrait of the artist as a sixty-five-year-old man; and a beige smock with eerie accessories—muzzle, strap, headgear—attached.

This last piece, a “relational garment” designed to yoke three people together, was created by Deerfield High School senior Cassidy Jackson, who won Best in Show in the fashion division. Jackson, who will attend the Pratt Institute in New York in the fall, explained her motivation.

“Earlier, I was standing by my piece, and a guy walked by and said, ‘That’s weird,’ and kept walking,” she said. “I thought that was fantastic. Obviously, I love it when people stand there and actually give it a chance, but I think there’s value in making somebody ask, ‘What is that?’ and, ‘Why is a high schooler doing that?’”

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