When Rachel Mori was a sophomore at Churchill County High School two years ago, her younger cousin saw a mug he really wanted. Mori offered to make him one. After three weeks, she handed him a finished product. From that point on, Mori was an artist. 

Rachel Mori

“After that, I’ve just been interested in making different kinds of mugs and making them super cool. Like I’ll add a twisty handle or something,” she says. Still, though, she never thought of herself as an artist until her art teacher approached her and suggested that Mori submit a portfolio of her work to the 2022 Scholastic Art Awards, just to see how her skills measured up against other students in the area. 

She measured up quite nicely, bringing home several awards and the opportunity to see her work displayed in a professional gallery space.

Discovering and validating new artists in like Mori is exactly the point of the Scholastic Art Awards program.

A Rare Opportunity

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, established in 1923, is the longest-running and most prestigious national recognition programs for creative teens in grades 7 through 12. The Nevada Museum of Art hosts the award program for the Northern Nevada region, which includes Washoe, Carson City, Churchill, Douglas, Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Lyon, Mineral, Pershing, Storey and White Pine counties. (The writing component is no longer active in Northern Nevada.)

“There are not that many opportunities for young visual artists, particularly in middle schools,” says Jacque Dawson, the Associate Director of Education and Engagement with the Nevada Museum of Art, who manages the regional awards. “So this is a rare opportunity where they have a chance to put their artwork out there bravely before a panel of judges and have the chance to have their work exhibited.”

Winners are in excellent company. Past winners include such luminaries as artist Andy Warhol, filmmaker Ken Burns, author Truman Capote and last year’s inauguration sensation, poet Amanda Gorman.

As Dawson explains, each fall, art instructors in schools around the region inform their students about the awards program and encourage them to submit their work by December. Students upload digital images of their art, in 17 categories, ranging from painting to drawing and illustration, ceramics and glass, sculpture, photography, digital art, film, animation and more. Graduating seniors may also submit portfolios, which may each contain a series of six distinct works communicating a single cohesive idea or visual investigation. 

A panel of professional judges (who are anonymous) score submissions on originality, technical skills and the emergence of personal voice or vision. The top awards for each category are the Gold Key (the top award); the Silver Key (second place for a category) and Honorable Mention. From the award winners, several works are nominated for the American Visions Award, the highest regional honor. 

In all, the Northern Nevada region saw a total of 1,465 submissions. Of those, the judges selected 63 individual pieces to receive Gold Key awards, 88 Silver Keys, 309 Honorable Mentions. Five of the Gold Key winners were selected as American Visions Nominees.

Gold and Silver Key award recipients will be honored with a ceremony on Thurs., Feb. 10 at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Nightingale Concert Hall. Gold Key winners’ work will be displayed at the Sheppard Contemporary gallery at UNR, and American Visions nominees will appear at the Nevada Museum of Art. Both will be on view through Feb. 25.

Additionally, the NMA offers scholarships of $1,000 each to a selection of portfolio Gold Key winners. Local arts group Wild Women Artists also contributes a $500 Emerging Artist Award. 

Gold Key winners will be automatically entered into the national competition in New York.

“Over the years, I’ve met a lot of these teenagers who almost feel like they need permission to identify as artists,” Dawson says. “This gives them permission to say, ‘I am an artist,’ and to claim it confidently.”

Meaningful Validation

Eighteen-year-old Jonah Dees, a senior at Reno High School, has submitted work to the Scholastic Art Awards every year since eighth grade and has won awards previously. In fact, one of his 2021 submissions became an American Visions nominee and went on to be printed on a series of street banners that now hang on lamp posts along Wells Avenue.

“Garden” by Jonah Dees

This year, Dees’ submissions won him three Gold Keys, one of which, “Garden,” a painting done with acrylics, was an American Visions nominee.

“I think the pieces I submitted this year are the pieces I’ve been most proud of in my entire life,” he says, pointing to “Garden” as representing the height of his technical skills and culmination of years’ of work. “It kind of represents a specific time in my life, a time of growth. Since I’m a senior in high school and I’m graduating, the artwork I’ve made and the impact it makes on my community is kind of a legacy I’m leaving behind, and I’m very proud of that.”

As for Mori, she ultimately received two Gold Keys, three Silver Keys and three Honorable Mentions. The experience and recognition have certainly validated to her that she is, indeed, an artist.

“It’s exciting because I’ve never been known for being good at art or anything. I usually spend about two weeks on each of my projects, so to be rewarded for that is really exciting,” she says. “Most people who do art don’t always think they’re very good at it. So when you do win something, it’s a huge confidence booster. And even if you don’t win, it’s worth the time to see where you’re at, and you get great feedback. So it’s a learning experience.”

Dees agrees. “I think this is probably the best competition for young artists anywhere in the whole country. And in Northern Nevada, it’s a really big deal, honestly, because there are thousands of submissions, and it’s a really great spotlight for young artists, to get their name out there, and just to be inspired by other artists. I go to the ceremonies, and I see all these great works being displayed on the screens, and I leave that event feeling more and more inspired. So it’s a really great platform.”

The Scholastic Art Awards 2022 Gold Key award winners’ artwork is on display at Sheppard Gallery at UNR. The American Visions Nominated Works are on display at the Nevada Museum of Art. Both exhibitions are on view through Feb. 25. More info here.

Images courtesy of Rachel Mori and Jonah Dees.

This article was funded by a City of Reno Arts + Culture Grant.

Posted by Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina is a freelance writer and editor who has been covering the arts and culture scene in the Reno area for nearly two decades. See more of her work at www.jessicasantina.com.