Sporting a wide open smile with her club pins securely fastened to a red blazer, Isabella Durand is proud to represent her Catholic all-girls high school, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. At age 16, Isabella is confident that she will make a career as an artist — having her art included in the Robert Graham Memorial Student Art Exhibition has just boosted her confidence.

“For my art to be here — knowing that it’s going to be seen by so many people — it’s just really overwhelming,” she told Angelus News at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which has sponsored the event since 2012. This year’s exhibit, themed “Spirituality in Art,” began January 27 and ends April 21, on Easter Sunday.

This is Isabella’s first opportunity to showcase her art at a public venue, and she has a deeply personal reason why the Cathedral is the perfect place to exhibit her Peruvian retablos, a ceramic and wood creation.

“For my inspiration for my piece, it came back to where my faith began, which was with my grandmother,” Isabella said. “She’s really the person who really introduced me to the faith and really helped cultivate it, especially when I was younger.”

Isabella Durand's Peruvian retablos, made from ceramic and wood, on display at The Robert Graham Memorial Student Art Exhibition. (CLARA FOX)

The retablos, which Isabella says is usually seen around Christmas time in Peru, shows her grandmother speaking to a young Isabella, who listens, seated at her feet. On the walls of the retablos are images of Christian art that inspires her.

“I think she’d love it,” Isabella says of her grandmother. “I think she would be proud of it especially because faith was always a big and important aspect of her life.”

Her artwork blended her family’s Peruvian heritage and her faith — but also gave her a chance to grieve her grandmother. “When she passed away it was a hard time for me, and so being able to express that through my art was really kind of helpful to visualize that feeling,” she said.

Although Isabella has been an enthusiastic artist for many years, this exhibit was the first time that she began to see how faith is able to inspire great works of art. “I’ve never associated art to God, and so this is a new experience for me.” She added that the artwork gave her the opportunity to “dig down deep in [herself] and kind of figure out how this art relates to God and how they can merge.”

Heather Kent, the visual and performing arts department chair at Flintridge, has no trouble seeing Isabella succeed in the arts. “Isabella is a really fascinating artist to watch grow,” she said. “She’s super curious and is really interested in trying all kinds of things. She works with a lot of mixed media work. She’s open to anything.”

Kent added, “I see her biggest challenge being making choices and figuring out where to focus her time and energy, which is a really wonderful gift to have.” At the moment, Isabella dreams of working in design, although she admits that she frequently changes her mind about the specific field.

The Robert Graham exhibit is more than just a venue for aspiring full-time artists. Jack Pendley, 18, a senior at Loyola High School, may seem like an up-and-coming career photographer, but he insists that despite winning numerous awards for his black and white photograph, Mother and Child, he’d like to keep photography as a hobby.

John Pendley's award-winning portrait "Mother and Child" expresses the words of Christ, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name, welcomes me ..." Luke 9:48. (CLARA FOX)

“I took these photos in my living room with a lamp, so I didn’t think they were going to be as amazing and popular as they are now,” Jack said. His mother and younger brother posed for the portrait where he experimented with contrasting one light source and darkness, a technique known as chiaroscuro. He was more consumed with achieving that technique, and was surprised by the results.

Last year, Jack was honored with the Gold Key award by the prestigious Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and won first place in the Drexel University High School Photography competition.

“When I learned the fundamentals of digital photography my sophomore year, about rule of thirds and all that stuff, I just felt so professional about it. I felt so amateur before,” he said, referencing the sophomore photography class, where his talent for portraiture became evident.

“It’s kind of haunting,” Cristina Saggese, the advanced placement studio art teacher at Loyola, said about the image. “The child is still too young to leave the mother but everything about the future is in the picture.” She added that the image captures the love of the parent who knows that in time they will have to let their child grow on their own.

As an art teacher for 30 years, Saggese knows that many of her students will never pursue a career in art, but she’s happy that her collaborative classes allow students to grow with an artistic sensibility and “to be aware of beauty, to be better observers of the world around them, to appreciate what they see with the eyes of an artist.”

Kent agreeed, “We really need creative thinkers, and whether it’s directly related to the arts or indirectly, that thought process of coming up with an idea, and thinking about how you communicate it is invaluable.”

The exhibit is named after the late Robert Graham, a Mexican-born American sculptor of international fame who was based in Los Angeles. He is remembered as a mentor to many aspiring artists, often inviting students to his studio to learn and create. He died in 2008, but left behind a legacy in Catholic art — he created the Great Bronze Doors of the Cathedral among other notable public art displays.

Saggese is grateful for Graham’s legacy and for the legacy of Gayle Garner Roski, the former Chair of the Fine Arts Committee (FAC) for the Cathedral, who inaugurated the exhibit. Saggese noted that this competition differs from the many others that her students participate in because the spiritual theme encourages students to communicate the sacred through their art.

“It’s a beautiful connection for them to think about their work in terms of how their art can communicate a spiritual idea. That is something we don’t see in all these contests. We do all these contests, but there isn’t that theme.

“It’s something new [for the students] to think about — to see themselves as a Catholic school community of artists.”

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