For her art class during her junior year at Flagler-Palm Coast High School, photographer Briana Aguiar decided to concentrate on portraits.
Never mind that the 16-year-old Bunnell resident, who began to seriously pursue photography only during her freshman year, had won first place in the architecture category of the Photographic Society of America’s 2020 Youth Show – an international competition.
Never mind that pandemic-enforced social distancing made photographing people more challenging than capturing a unicorn.
For her portfolio class under art teacher Edson Beckett, “this year we have the AOC, our area of concentration,” Aguiar says. “I decided I would do more portraits because in the past I’ve only taken nature and architecture. I wanted to focus on people, but that made it really difficult this year because people don’t want to be really close. It’s been really hard to find people to take pictures of – I had to resort to just my family or my friends. I’ve been really thankful for that.”
So, with the pandemic affecting her process more than her photography’s content, Aguiar says she asked her friend Makayla Catalan “to meet me at the beach in the morning and we’ll try to take some pictures and see what happens.”
What happened is that Aguiar’s photo, which she titled “Beach Breeze,” won Best of Show in the 2021 High School Student Show presented by the Flagler County Art League. This year the annual exhibition, which features work by FPCHS and Matanzas High School students, is online at flaglercountyartleague.org through April 30.
The show’s works range from classic landscapes and still life to horror movie posters, celebrity portraits and Dali-esque fantasy. Winners were also named in seven categories of mediums: painting, pastel, digital art, drawing, graphic design, mixed media and colored pencil.
The top three works will be on display from May 8-31 at Galleria d’Arte, 230-231 St. Joe Plaza Drive, Palm Coast. Along with Aguiar’s “Beach Breeze,” those works include “Hunter’s Arc,” a watercolor and gouache painting by J.D. Sweeney, which won First Place of Show, and “Smiling Earth,” a graphic design by Jaiden Arnett, which won Second Place of Show.
All three are FPCHS students under Beckett, the 2010 Flagler County Artist of the Year who is in his thirty-third year at the school and currently teaches advanced placement art and design as well as digital media.
“It’s just been a really weird year,” says Beckett, who notes that about 30 percent of his students, including most of his advanced students, are attending classes remotely. “I don’t really see a lot of the works in progress. I don’t see them until they have turned them in. It’s been hard to critique, although we still try to do it. I was afraid we might not get very good work at all because I’m not standing over their shoulders and giving them guidance as they’re working – the remote kids anyway.
“I have very high expectations for these kids, and they will tell you I tell them this all the time, that the bar is really, really high. I’ve probably dampened those expectations, not on purpose but because of the whole situation we’re in right now. But they’ve met or even exceeded what I thought they would be able to do in this situation, both in person and the remote kids, which has been a super pleasant surprise.”
Aguiar’s “Beach Breeze,” at first glance, is a seemingly simple photo: A young woman is carrying a surfboard above her head, and her face is turned away from the camera as she stares at some unknowable something in the distance. As photojournalism, the shot commits a huge faux pas – we can’t see the face of its human subject, which would make almost any newspaper or news website editor snarl and press the delete key (though clearly not here).
But Aguiar isn’t shooting the news. Instead she has captured what critical art theorists, sociologists and existential philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre call “the gaze” – the social, psychological and power dynamics of seeing and being seen. And, amazingly, Aguiar has done so without even depicting the eyes of her human subject. By capturing her subject with head turned and gazing at some mysterious “other” in the distance, she takes viewers not only beyond the confines of her frame – she forces us to “know” there is a world beyond what she depicts — but she also seduces viewers into the realms of the psyche, being and nothingness . . . just what is it that has ensnared the gaze of the young surfer, and why?
Art show judge Hanneke Jevons, a colored pencil artist, photographer and art teacher who retired from Flagler County Schools in 2010, said in her show comments that Aguiar’s “Beach Breeze” “gives a cohesive image of an anticipated event. There is an excellent use of composition by using a soft focus for the background and a sharper image of the surfer and board. The viewer is drawn in by good use of angles, softness of colors, and the cropping of the figure to emphasize the anticipation of the event.”
Beckett says for past student shows, he allowed students in his advanced classes to submit “their strongest piece.” However, because it was an online show, FCAL limited the number of works that could be submitted, “so I chose the pieces this time around,” Beckett says. “I tried to choose a variety. I chose some from my AP kids, some from my advanced portfolio kids, some from my digital media kids. There were seven categories, so I tried to make sure there wasn’t a category that went without an entry.”
During her beach photo session with her friend, Aguiar says her winning photo didn’t immediately stand out.
“That was one of my favorites of all the pictures I did that day, but when I was taking it, I didn’t go ‘That’s the photo,’ ” she says. “I won’t delete any of the pictures I take, because I might get home and really like them.”
Though she uses a digital camera these days, “the entire point of all the photos I take is to make them look like film,” Aguiar says. “I’ve worked with film in the past, especially my first year, and I really love the way it looks. I like it more than digital, but it is expensive and it is a lot of work to do that.” (Beckett notes that the beginning photography course at FPCHS emphasizes black-and-white techniques, and that students process their own film and make their own prints in the school’s two dark rooms.)
“I really want to make photography my career,” Aguiar says. “The big dream is to one day be a photographer for National Geographic. I really like taking photos of nature. But I wouldn’t be mad if it just stayed a hobby.”
While the pandemic presented a challenge for Aguiar to find subjects for her portrait photography, J.D. Sweeney, whose painting “Hunter’s Arc” won First Place of Show, says the pandemic “of course affected my flow of creativity, my mental health and how I was able to keep up the motivation to do my art.”
However, the 16-year-old junior and Palm Coast resident says, she ultimately “was inspired to do art more because it kept me inside. Because my art is traditional (as opposed to digital), you can create art out of anything. You don’t need good resources, like high-quality pens or markers.”
That said, Sweeney adds, “I mostly use watercolor, and I use Prismacolor markers to do detail in ink.”
Akin to Aguiar, Sweeney’s subject matter, at least “Hunter’s Arc,” wasn’t affected by the pressures of the pandemic.
“When I start painting or creating an image, I mostly have a very vague image in my brain,” she says. “I listen to music while I work so a lot of the time that influences my emotions or how I feel. I can go into a painting with an idea of, let’s say, painting a flower, and it’ll come out like a goddess — it’ll be something completely different. It’s just a creative flow. Whatever happens happens. Whatever comes out on the paper, it’s always something imaginative and creative and something that I want people to be affected by.”
As for the music that becomes her muse: “My music range is really drastic – I listen to early ’20s and ’30s swing up to 2015 punk rock. It just depends on what mood I’m in, and it usually affects what comes out. I like to listen to music that has a deep meaning and that has a very unique style. I listen to a lot of Queen and alternative. One of my favorite bands right now is Will Wood – he creates a lot of unique music that has no generic flow.”
Sweeney’s “Hunter’s Arc” depicts a grim-faced woman with wide-brimmed fedora and blood smudged on her model-esque cheekbone, while she’s nonchalantly holding some sort of shotgun-like weapon over her right shoulder. With her leather vest, Punisher-style skull belt buckle and her red, scarf-like necktie, she’s a fashionista, femme fatale and “Walking Dead” zombie hunter all rolled into one, a combo that’s heightened by Sweeney’s style – a mashup, of sorts, of anime and expressionism.
Jevons, in her judge’s comments, said “Hunter’s Arc” “is an exceptional painting that uses color, design, and a pattern of shapes to convey the mood. Your eye moves through the painting with the use of white/light and the facial expression also reflects the feeling. A strong emotional message. Technically well done and good use of color.”
While Sweeney says she is undecided about her career plans, she does profess a fondness for working on a certain type of canvas – human flesh.
“I’ve dabbled in a lot of different types of art — I like to open up my opportunities to be as vast as possible,” she says. “But my number one goal, my dream career would be to have my own tattoo parlor. I’m really interested in doing tattoo designs and inking, makeup art, special effects in movies — things like that. It’s still a form of art but it’s more taking on the human form and creating this altered sense of reality that I really like.
“Ever since I was in elementary school, I would doodle on myself and it got to a point where, when I had extra time in class, I would make these full-fledged sleeves of tattoos on my arm and come home and my dad would be like ‘What did you do? Why did you draw on yourself?’ And I’d be like ‘I want to be a tattoo artist — I gotta practice,’ ” she adds with a soft laugh.
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
Category winners of the High School Student Show include:
* Colored Pencil – “K POP” by Elle Marin, Mantanzas High School (instructor – Amy Taylor).
* Digital Art – “Refraction” by Amira Rooney, Mantanzas (instructor – Amanda Johnston).
* Drawing – “Still Life” by Rebecca Knotts, FPC (instructor – Amber Jensen).
* Graphic Design – “Extraterrestrial” by Emily DelGrippo, FPC (instructor – Edson Beckett).
* Mixed Media – “White Snakeroot’ by Sophia Young, FPC (instructor – Edson Beckett).
* Painting – “Oranges” by Christina Courson, Matanzas (instructor – Amy Taylor).
* Pastel – “Fall Reflections” by Alana Portas, Matanzas (instructor – Amy Taylor).