Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education
Today, September 1, marks the launch of the 2021 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards! While we’re excited to soon be celebrating a new crop of creative teens, today, we’re going to rewind a few months, back to March. Remember March? The past few months are a blur, and for me, March feels like both years ago and just yesterday. The National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards were announced on March 16, just three days after the killing of Breonna Taylor, two days before the Fort Wayne Museum of Art closed to the public as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, and about a week before Indiana’s stay-at-home order went into effect to slow the pandemic. The world continues to reel from the effects of these events. The National Awards Ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City was cancelled and replaced with a virtual celebration, and our traditional regional celebration of National Medalists was cancelled, too. So, in looking forward to this year, we’re also taking the opportunity to (belatedly) celebrate and recognize last year’s most outstanding work.
Students from the Northeast Indiana and Northwest Ohio region of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards received 38 National Medals, including 13 Gold Medals that earned their awardees an invitation to Carnegie Hall. The American Visions Medal, designated as the best-of-show artwork from the region, went to Jocelyn Cooley for her work, What to Name the Black American… Jocelyn also received a Silver Medal with Distinction for her senior portfolio, an award that includes a $1,000 scholarship and is given to just 30 students from around the country. We wish Jocelyn, and all of the National Medalists, an incredibly belated but equally heartfelt congratulations!
Almost six months after the fact, the initial excitement of receiving a National Medal may have worn off, but with time comes perspective. Therefore, today we’re catching up with Jocelyn Cooley and hearing about her work and experience in her own words. You’ll find the remaining works from her powerful portfolio featured throughout the interview below.
What was it like to graduate high school during a pandemic?
I would definitely describe it as an…experience. I commend my high school for attempting to ensure the seniors had some sort of positive ending, although it was a challenge for all of us. We did end up having an altered graduation as well as a senior gathering socially distanced on our football field with fireworks, which I guess was good enough for some closure to my high school career. It also came with its difficulties though, as I never experienced a prom, senior prank or skip day, as well as getting the once in a lifetime opportunity to go to NYC and walk across Carnegie Hall for the National Scholastic Awards Ceremony, to have it cancelled due to the virus. Those were definitely some heartbreakers for me, and some things that took me a lot longer to get over than I’d like to admit. But, I did it.
How and when did you first become interested in art and specifically photography? How has your work developed and changed so far?
My family always used to plant some pretty little flowers in the front yard, but the year I was going into 6th grade we had a different species, they were purple and extremely long. I noticed the way they leaned and all the shapes they made, as well as enjoyed the way they looked really close up. I was fascinated. I had this really old, dingy Samsung tablet with the absolute worst camera quality, but I photographed these flowers with the sun shining through the back, and instantly fell in love with the ability to capture moments like those. Ever since then I have been in love with capturing moments that show the beauty in anything and everything. With that, my work has changed drastically throughout the years. At first I was solely a nature fanatic, then moved to sports and action shoots which I excelled in, and I’m currently in love with portrait and concept works. But at any time I will shoot anything and everything, just to get the practice.
This is the artist statement you submitted with your portfolio:
“A melanocyte is a cell that forms melanin, the dark pigment that contributes to the skin having color. Melanin has been held captive, seen as unequal, less, and as something disgusting since the beginning of history. This degradation and disintegration of human beings has been derived from teeny tiny little cells in the body. A sum of years later, melanin is not a weapon. These cells produce a pigment to the skin that instead represent beauty, strength, and proof of survival. This pigment is being reclaimed in America today, as courage and realization of the positivity and inspiration that skin of color is becoming ever so evident. This work has been made to express the every so great beauty that Black Americans have, and have always had. To express the 24/7 solidarity and gratification that Black Americans are forever showing society today. The reward that has come from a little cell in their body.”
Is there anything you would add or change after the events of the past few months?
Honestly? I feel that submitting that statement with my portfolio months before this amazing societal movement that has been going on has dwelled on me a lot recently, because it’s exactly what I was trying to get out to the judges. That POC are reclaiming this societal disadvantage given at birth. That we are proving the fact that even though we have these open wounds in our souls from these disparities descending from our grandmothers and grandfathers and now onto us with the SAME issues as years ago, we can still defend our rights. We can still process that our melanin is not a weapon. That we are the generation that is 100% fed up, and we are not going to stay silent for our brothers and sisters. Just as in my artist statement we are in complete solidarity, joined with people of all races, backgrounds, and ethnicities in the same fight. I’ve never seen this before and it gives me absolute chills just thinking about that. It is absolutely amazing. I feel that it hits spot on on why people are partaking in this movement, specifically in regards to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who months and months later still have not received justice. Their melanin was seen as a weapon, which is just another characteristic to being Black in America. I wanted to open the eyes of people in society in an artistic way, so I made a portfolio that is truly near my heart.
Knowing that my father has been subjected to racial profiling and was almost jailed for “fitting the description”, I felt it was my duty as a young woman of color in a generation reclaiming the hate and disgust as beauty to make this portfolio, and the artist statement along with it is beautiful.
Describe the process of creating your portfolio, especially the decision to combine your photographs with other materials (the TIME covers and embroidery).
The process of creating my portfolio was a long one, with many setbacks. I wanted to portray my thoughts in the most correct way, to show that history is truly being rewritten, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. There was a lot of brainstorming with my teacher, and the decision to use the TIME covers was the best one. I thought, well this magazine has been highlighting turning points and noteworthy times in history for a long time. We looked up some previous covers, and saw one which had a man of color running from a group of SWAT members, and the title was “America, 1968 What has changed, What hasn’t.” with the “1968” crossed out, and “2015” written above it. That was it for me really. That’s how I wanted to portray my thoughts. So I altered the magazine cover, to highlight the important aspects, and used my own powerful portrait of a Black male with the fist to overlay over the cover, and realized that was it. That’s what I want people to see. The use of embroidery was to trigger the viewer’s own interpretation. I put it over the eyes to kind of have people ask, “What can’t they see? Are they being blinded? Forced to close?” as well as things that even though the eyes are covered, the body language doesn’t show fear. That even with the eyes covered, even with society forcing POC’s eyes closed to the racial disparities, the body language still shows strength. That we are reclaiming this beauty and power, and even with society forcing us down, we can still prosper.
What do your Scholastic Awards mean to you?
They truly mean everything. I had entered the Awards in previous years and had good results, but I was banking on my senior year to succeed the most. I worked hard as ever and received National Awards and I truly have never been happier. The best part was it was something I’m truly passionate about as well, which is POC’s experience in this country.
It’s always been my passion since middle school, so to be able to create a body of work and for it to succeed so much? It’s something I’ve never been more proud of.
Have you been working on anything more recently that you’d like to share?
I’ve been working on brainstorming a self portrait portfolio, just kind of deeper evaluating and photographing myself! It hasn’t gone too far as of right now, but I can’t wait to share when I’m done!
What are your plans for the future?
Currently I’m attending college at PFW to be a part of their Pre-Physician’s Assistant program! I am going to be taking some photography classes as well.
Starting today, students aged 13-18 can create accounts and upload their work at artandwriting.org! We can’t wait to see this year’s incredible work.