“We receive dozens of requests every year for people to exhibit their art in these chapels,” Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik, pastor of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, told a crowd poised to flood the cathedral’s art galleries on March 11. “Most of the time we say no, because their art is not quite ready to be in a sacred space.”

But for the 60 young artists selected to exhibit their work as part of the Robert Graham Memorial Student Art Contest, the answer was “yes” — and they appreciated the magnitude of that approval. 

“It means a lot,” said Victoria Attwood, 17. “Only professional artwork is exhibited here. 

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

Last year, the inaugural contest exhibited art from students at two Catholic schools within the archdiocese; this year, six schools were invited to participate. Each school juried its own entries, submitting to the cathedral’s Fine Arts Committee a total of 10 pieces. 

Newly named in honor of sculptor Robert Graham, who designed the cathedral’s great bronze doors, the contest is continuing both the cathedral’s tradition of exhibiting art and the Catholic Church’s support of the arts, said Gayle Garner Roski, chair of the Fine Arts Committee. 

“The Catholic Church has a history of promoting art,” she said simply. “We’re doing something different: in a time when public schools are eliminating art, Catholic schools are promoting art.” 

Religious themes are, perhaps not surprisingly, prominent among the 60 pieces of art. Attwood, for example — a junior at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles — submitted an acrylic painting of Jesus’s crucified feet. 

But not all the works are explicitly religious. Alain Cruz, a senior at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, submitted two photos: one of a staircase, the other of a person in danger of drowning in the sea. 

“I feel honored,” said Cruz, 17. “It means a lot... allowing art to be in such a sacred place.” 

The exhibit encompasses a spectrum of media, from acrylic and watercolor paint to photography to digital collage and glass — and each school has its own artistic persona. Loyola’s display, for instance, is heavy on photography, while Encino’s Crespi Carmelite High School submitted paintings. 

“It has to do with the classes they offer,” Garner Roski explained. “They’re showing the best from the art classes they have.”

Art instructors hope that the art contest will impact the classes they’re able to offer at their schools. Frank Blanco, who teaches art at Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary High School in Montebello, pointed out that his students had never painted before undertaking the pieces that are now on display at the cathedral. “All we have is drawing class,” he explains. 

“I’m working on getting a painting class there,” he added. “[The contest has] definitely inspired me.”  

The participating exhibitors high schools in this year’s Student Art Exhibit include Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary, Montebello; Crespi Carmelite, Encino; Immaculate Heart, Los Angeles; Louisville, Woodland Hills; Loyola, Los Angeles; and Mayfield Senior School, Pasadena.

With thoughts of increasing the diversity of the exhibit, the Fine Arts Committee is considering inviting a greater number of schools to participate in next year’s Annual Robert Graham Memorial Student Art Contest, while decreasing the number of pieces each school may submit. 

As the contest matures, minor details may change; but the purpose will remain strong, said Garner Roski. 

“The ability to create is the most important human ability we can encourage,” she said. 

“And there’s no better name [we could give the contest than] Robert Graham. This was the highlight of his life, to build the doors of this cathedral.”

“He’d be happy we’re encouraging young artists to use their gifts,” agreed Msgr. Kostelnik.

The Annual Robert Graham Memorial Student Art Exhibit will be on display in two chapels of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels’ north ambulatory through early May. For information about next year’s Annual Robert Graham Memorial Student Art Exhibit, contact Gayle Garner Roski,  (818) 980-0385 or [email protected] 

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