No blank canvas: One student artist’s soul through shadow & light

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Paint and graphite. Color and gray. Shadows and highlights. Rough sketches and precise brush strokes. An outlet for all emotions, happiness, sadness. Sophomore Michaela Miller was the first freshman in AP Art at East last year and is the first sophomore in AP Art this year. Michaela gets her inspiration from stories: Shakespeare, fairy tales,  films, movies, music. She gets her inspiration from all things beautiful; Art is more than a passion for her, it’s her future.

When Michaela was in eighth grade she pursued one of the 30 positions available at ChiArts for traditional art. The admissions process consists of an interview and an audition piece. For the audition each applicant was given a topic that they were required to center a piece around. Michaela put an inordinate amount of work into getting into the program and was successful. However, Michaela was not able to attend ChiArts because her family was unable to find a place in Chicago.

“I felt bad, once I realized that we couldn’t get an apartment because… there were other kids that wanted that spot so badly and I kind of put them on waitlist,” Michaela says running her hand through her dyed neck length straw colored hair, the roots of which are their natural brown hue.

Miller’s motivation for seeking out admissions was a feeling of not fitting in at school and being misunderstood. Even now she relays a feeling of not being able to connect with most people, even other sophomores, the exceptions being her friends in AP Art.

Art provides a way for Miller to connect with people, a way for her to try to share what she finds beautiful and interesting with other people. With Miller being the only sophomore in AP Art and last year being the only freshman, the age gap between her and the other people in her class takes a little bit of a toll on her relationships.

“I think that’s what’s difficult about it, is just having friends that are older than you and sometimes you can’t always connect with them because you’re a lot younger,” Michaela says swiping at the few tears falling from her brown eyes on to her pink tinged cheeks.

While talking to Michaela, it is extremely obvious that she feels things very deeply and is very empathetic. She considers how her own actions and choices affect others, evidenced by the fact that when she found out that she would not be able to attend ChiArts she immediately thought of the other applicants.

“Michaela has grown up significantly in becoming stronger emotionally, showing empathy towards others and understanding the importance of preparing for her future. However there is one constant that has never changed for her … her love of art,” Michaela’s father Brent Miller says.

Michaela says that even though there is a time limit on her relationships with  the upperclassmen in AP Art, they make coming to school easier and that the relationships make her a better person. The significant age gap does nothing to hinder Michaela’s performance in the class. AP Art teacher Heather Stanich says that Michaela is very participatory in class and constantly gives feedback to her classmates on their pieces. Stanich also says that the critiques that Michaela makes in class are always indicative of her observant nature. Michaela’s conceptual understanding of art shows a maturity well beyond her age.

“She was right in there with those seniors and juniors, you wouldn’t think she’s a freshman. This is where she’s meant to be. She’s been so talented and skilled and she continues to challenge herself and work harder. She’s constantly showing growth,” Stanich says.

When she was in middle school Michaela felt really alienated and misunderstood, which was a catalyst for the more negative shift in tone that her art work took. Michaela’s art style now is reminiscent of French and Italian art styles, whereas when she was younger it was heavily influenced by Japanese animations. The Japanese art style was something that was infused into her life by her father. Michaela’s mother and father took a trip to Japan in 2008 which fueled her father’s appreciation for Japanese culture. Miller wanted to surround Michaela with Japanese culture because he wanted her to develop a unique and disciplined perspective.

“Originally, her art was ‘surface’ level works … cute dogs, anime, etc. But as her emotional awareness has grown and deepened, her art has grown and deepened. Her art has explored more emotional and dark as well as light but deep subjects,” Brent says.

Michaela and her father have a very deep connection fortified by their creativity and similarly dark sense of humor. Michaela’s father has always shown support for Michaela’s creative passion and was the reason that Michaela chose to start pursuing art in the first place. As a way of making him happy when Michaela was younger, a lot of what he enjoyed found its way into her art. Even though right now her art is not heavily influenced by the Japanese art style, it is something that Michaela credits as kickstarting her creative passions.

Looking at Michaela’s art is almost like looking at the cover of a story. There is a vague understanding that there is something more than what you see and yet without diving in further there is no way to understand what is really there. Michaela really showcases her love of stories in her art.

Stanich says that there is a character development within Michaela’s work, where she can almost see some of the Japanese art style in. When Michaela came in as a young artist her work took on a straight on perspective, but she has started varying the perspectives in her work. Michaela has also started experimenting with design elements in her work and continues to grow with her drawing and painting skills.

“She’s imaginative. She almost has a kind of surrealism style to her artwork, where she can do kind of realistic looking objects but can put them in a dreamlike state or situation … Any other art student would be like, ‘I’m going to draw or paint a fish.’ No, she paints a fish sliced up and a ribbon wrapped around it,” Stanich says.

Last year, Michaela was in a dark place because she was stretched thin between piles of homework and art classes at Waubonsee that ran till ten at night. The late nights took a toll on her health and she developed insomnia.

Michaela would stay up trying to get all of her homework done and wouldn’t be able to go to sleep. At one point Michaela stayed up for two and a half days and ended up falling asleep in one of her classes. During that time Michaela discovered the symbolism in angels, the fact that they symbolized protection and happiness and coping with difficult situations. Eventually the stress became too much and Michaela had to go to the hospital.

“That was the worst because then I got even further behind in school … I lost all my relationships when that happened. One of my best friends, let everybody know what I was going through and it just ruined so many relationships for me. And it just, it led me to be a better version of myself, but it was just such a difficult time. And just healing from it, I think I’m still kind of trying to forget about it or just cope with it,” Michaela says.

Stanich says that this year Michaela has been handling the workload for AP Art a lot better than last year. Michaela prefers taking the time to make truly quality pieces but with the double workload with Waubonsee and AP Art, Michaela had to start sacrificing quality for quantity last year. This year though she has been able to manage her workload a lot better without the Waubonsee art class and she was able to submit work for the AP Art exam.

At the time, art was a source of stress for Michaela. Specifically, the assignments that she had to complete for classes. It wasn’t until school ended that she was able to do art for herself. While the situation created a negative association with assigned art, it didn’t create a negative association with art in general, art is still something that she wants to do professionally. This school year Michaela has begun to prioritize sleep over her schoolwork.

“I’m definitely better. But not the greatest. But I do like to say ‘never better’ because that does bring me up a little bit. Like if you’re having another bad day … it kind of makes you feel better. Like you should be ‘never better’ always. You know, you should always make the most of every day you have, cause you don’t know if it’s going to end,” Michaela says.

Mythreyi Namuduri is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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