Taking artistic risks and drawing inspiration from family led two Vancouver students to create artwork that earned national acclaim. Devon Brown and Amyah Gibson, both seniors at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, earned medals in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. The National ACT-SO Competition encourages academic and cultural achievement among African American high school students.
Brown created a silver medal-winning sculpture that honors Taíno culture. “The Tainos were an Arawak people of Jamaica,” Brown explained. “They were later colonized. That led to diversification of what the people look like today.”
Working with VSAA teacher Crystal Zeller and mentor Russ Ford, Brown crafted a 6” wide by 7” tall sculpture using newspaper and clay with colors that symbolize the Taíno, who had a pottery tradition. Though Brown had been making pottery for only a year and had never attempted sculpture before creating her award-winning piece, her natural talents coupled with research and creativity converged with profound results.
For Brown, the meaning of her work is personal. “My grandmother is actually Jamaican, so I wanted to applaud her for all the sacrifices that she’s made and just touch on my own culture,” she said. And she hopes that her piece resonates with viewers in a way that is personal to them. “I want them to leave with a message about exploring your identity and actually learning about your culture, because it does impact who you are. And the history of your people. It will change your perspective on a lot of things.”
Gibson also hopes that her gold medal-winning photography has important takeaways for viewers. “I hope that people realize that they can do it. You’re going to have your moments when you feel like you can’t or you feel like your work isn’t good enough, but all artwork is beautiful in its own way. That’s something I really want people to understand,” Gibson said.
While preparing for the ACT-SO competition, Gibson found inspiration in her mother. “My mom was very supportive of me and she was there for me when I felt like I couldn’t do it or I was getting down on myself about how [my photos] could have been better,” Gibson explained. “I just really appreciated how my mom was there for me the whole time and made me feel really good about what I was doing.”
The experience led to an important realization about her artistic process. “My pictures reflected how I felt in the moment. I realized that a lot of my art has to do with how I’m feeling and also reflects my mental health. I found that really inspiring for myself so I can know what to do in the future and just take pictures based on how I’m feeling,” said Gibson, who has been taking photos for three years and also paints.
Both Gibson and Brown plan to continue their artistic pursuits. Brown has already begun planning her next sculpture and will re-enter the ACT-SO competition in both sculpture and photography. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, she will study psychiatry and international business after she graduates.
Gibson will continue her photography. She plans to attend college or a university, where she will major in business and photography.
Gibson and Brown also have advice and encouragement for fellow student-artists. “Be patient with yourself,” said Brown. “Give yourself a chance for error, to improve.”
Added Gibson: “Anything is possible.”