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Celebrating Creativity

The spring art show at the high school draws big crowds.  Photo by George Mendel

Not every kid has a perfectly planned career path. But for those with an artistic itch that demands they paint, draw or sculpt every chance they get, the Mt. Lebanon School District has them covered.

Art education begins early, with elementary students in first through fifth grades attending a weekly 45-minute art class where they draw, paint, sculpt and even do some print-making. Elementary visual-arts facilitator Garrett Hain says the district’s media-based curriculum plays to the teachers’ strengths and allows them to put together a diverse set of lessons for their young students.

In middle school, students can begin focusing on the arts, with an eighth grade arts enrichment elective that offers in-depth explorations of art history and different media.

Jennifer Rodriguez has helmed the fine arts department for nine years. Photo by Judy Macoskey

The visual arts department at Mt. Lebanon High School is just one of eight departments under the umbrella of “fine arts.” Students who enroll in its various classes have thrived in recent years under the direction of Jennifer Rodriguez, a 17-year Mt. Lebanon faculty vet who’s in her ninth year as the district’s fine arts chair and is one of two art teachers at the high school. This year, about 150 students will take at least one class from the program.

The students spend the year creating a wide range of works across all disciplines, culminating each April in an art show at the high school.

The sheer number of courses and options available at the high school may come as a surprise to a rising ninth grader. Students start off by taking Art 1 and 2—foundational courses that allow plenty of time to move into honors courses in 2D art or ceramics later in high school. 2D students study everything from acrylic painting to pencil drawing. Ceramics students have their hands in the clay learning a variety of techniques, including glazing and bisque firing.

Students who complete one of those classes may select AP Studio Art, the top level of visual arts classes, where students put together a 20-piece art portfolio over the course of the year. This year, 27 students are enrolled in the AP class, and their finished portfolios can be submitted to the AP Board for college credit. Those who find their work accepted are a point of pride for Rodriguez.

“It’s one thing to earn a grade from me,” she says. “It’s another thing to have college professors and professional working artists look at your body of work, know nothing about you and still validate your success.”

That typical track through the high school visual arts program doesn’t mean that’s how every kid does it. 2019 Lebo grad Sofia Rignani developed an interest in art during middle school and jumped into the entry-level classes as a freshman. “I was happy when I first started that there was a lot more art that you could take in high school,” she says. “I was surprised by the flexibility.”

But her interest waned over the next two years before returning with a vengeance her senior year when she took as many art electives as she could fit. The result? Rignani earned a scholarship to Arcadia University to study scientific illustration.

And Rignani isn’t the only recent Lebo visual arts student to find success. In May, Alayna Hollist, now a senior, won the Congressional Art Competition for Pennsylvania’s 17th district. Her colored pencil piece “The Candy Shop” beat 51 other pieces of art and is now on display in the U.S. Capitol Building. Hannah Jones, who graduated in June, earned a number of honors for her work in recent years. In 2018, she won the Ohio River Sweep Poster Contest’s grand prize, and her artwork was used for the posters promoting the event. Jones also won the Pearl Award for her submission in the 2017 Ocean Awareness Student Contest, for her piece inspired by the Great Barrier Reef. Jones, Natalie Callahan and Madeline Kelly each received $1,000 art scholarships from the Mt. Lebanon Partnership earlier this year.

Gabriel Davis-Andrés, with a Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro self-portrait. Photo by George Mendel

Rodriguez believes her visual arts students learn vital skills across a variety of fields, even if they don’t end up as professional artists.

“A good deal of our kids do go on to art school or go on to be a working artist, but if they don’t do that, most of them go on to a creative career,” she says. “Visual arts electives foster creative thinking and problem solving. Kids who go into things that require creativity find themselves able to think clearer or quicker and are able to find creative solutions to things. It’s a great idea for kids to have some kind of fine arts in their life. It enhances everything.”

Rodriguez is adamant that her program can work for students of all skill levels. “You could come in here having drawn nothing but a stick figure in your life and I can make something out of you,” she says with a laugh. Not every student needs to reach the AP Studio Art class to find benefit in the program either, although Rodriguez says, as with most things, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Some students take both the 2D and ceramic honors classes in the same semester, and others come into the art room every day during study hall and lunch to work on their current projects. AP Art students complete a high-quality piece every two weeks, so finding extra time to devote to their work can be crucial.

Does her program favor natural skill or a strong, original voice? Rodriguez refuses to pick a side.

Students start off by taking Art 1 and 2—foundational courses that allow plenty of time to move into honors courses in 2D art or ceramics later in high school.

“We try to celebrate young artists who are just figuring out what they want to say and who they want to be in this world,” she says. “They’re producing their own best result and communicating what they want to communicate most effectively.”

At the end of the year, the students’ completed artwork can end up in a variety of places. Much of it goes to family or friends. Some of the students begin to market their work, taking commissions or selling pieces at the Mt. Lebanon Artists’ Market. A lot of it ends up being displayed at the school, where Rodriguez likes to showcase as much of it as possible. (You can also see photos of many of the student pieces by following @mtlhs_artists on Instagram.) But it’s the April art show, which features a few hundred pieces from the AP Art students and another couple of hundred from across all the other classes, that truly captures the breadth of the entire program. More than 1,000 people attended this year, and Rodriguez is always thrilled for her students to see their work appreciated.

“I think there are incredible things happening in this room and incredible things happening for these kids as they work on their craft,” she says from the high school’s multi-level art space. “The art show is a way to not only gain recognition for the kids, but it’s a place and a venue for a celebration of their efforts and their creativity. To make something with your hands like that is truly admirable.”