In partnership with the district’s art teachers, the Great Valley School District Education Foundation created the SOAR Program to shine a light on the talents of the district’s art students and encourage and award students’ innovative ideas through art that integrates with the educational experience

Artists’ Minds SOAR with Wishes for the World

Winning SOAR Artists Honored at Reception in June

One student’s artwork reflected “a vision of the perfect world as it could be, should we work to implement changes immediately.” One artist whose work featured dozens of tiny doll-like figures was inspired by a song and a music video. Another tried to capture “that admiration for the natural world that … needs to be present in people’s mind to be able to help others and the world around them.” Still another remarked that the movie “Interstellar” inspired her creation, because “in that movie Earth is dying mostly because of pollution.” World peace was on another student’s mind as she worked on her piece, because “World Wars I and II … were harsh and yet, there was no positive outcome of the wars. Land … belongs to nature.”

Such disparate thoughts and ideas gave rise to stunning pieces of artwork that were created with the theme “What I Wish for the World” in mind. Visitors strolling the “Art Gallery” at Great Valley High School on June 6 were treated to a riot of colors and an arresting assortment of images as the Great Valley School District Education Foundation (GVSDEF) hosted a reception to honor nine outstanding student artists, who were recognized as winners of GVSD’s 1st Annual SOAR Competition.

Winners from the elementary schools (all from Grade 5) included Lyza Valitskas (General Wayne Elementary), Riya Shetty (Sugartown Elementary), Daisy Li (KD Markley Elementary) and Stacey Jiang (Charlestown Elementary). Winners at the Middle School (both from Grade 8) were Aridai Mendoza Rojas and Esme Luong McFee. Winners from the High School (both from Grade 12) were Marley McDonough and Jazmin Ramirez. Reuben Thota (also from Grade 12) received an Honorable Mention. Be sure to click the students name to see their vision for their artwork!

SOAR, which stands for Students’ Opportunity for Artist Recognition, was an idea born during the dark days of Covid. “The art teachers from the district’s various schools thought it would be valuable to create a program that mimicked an actual, real-life art competition,” explained Dr. Rita Jones, current board member of the GVSDEF and former superintendent for the district, at the reception.

As such, students were called upon to complete a Call for Entries and then had to create a piece in accordance with the chosen theme, adhering to specific parameters outlined by the committee for their final product. In addition, each student had to prepare an “artist’s statement” about their creation to display with their artwork. Last, winners were not chosen by teachers or administrators of GVSD; but rather, by a juried selection process, conducted by well-known professional artist and art teacher Randall Graham (who, it just so happens, was a graduate of the Great Valley School district).

In her remarks to the winning artists, Jessica Stanhagen, art teacher at Great Valley High School, commented, “A program like SOAR really prepares students for the competitive nature of the art world as it exists in 2022. It gives our students a unique professional experience – one they will have to master if they want to pursue art as a career after they leave school,” Stanhagen continued. “It’s especially great that they are being exposed to this at such a young age. Many artists don’t get this type of experience until college, or even later.”

“Going through the Call for Entries process is a very important lesson. This very much mimics real-world art shows,” agreed Graham, the professional artist who judged the competition (who unfortunately could not make the rescheduled SOAR reception due to a family birthday event). “Writing about [your] art and following all the procedures, deadlines and details is very much an important thing [to learn] to be a successful artist in the real world. A lot of my peers still struggle with that skill.”

Participation in SOAR was a yearlong experience, and the art teachers at the various schools shepherded their students throughout the process. Brainstorming ideas, helping students stick to the theme, and assisting students in crafting their artists’ statements are just some of the ways these teachers went “above and beyond” to help their students grow as artists.

“One student worked on her project every day for five months,” said Dr. Diana Mrochko, art teacher at Great Valley Middle School. “Other students may have put it off for a bit, and we art teachers helped them get back on track.”

Graham commented that he was incredibly impressed by the students’ work. “You can call me ‘bowled over.’ The talent is at a high level, but I was actually much more impressed by the thoughtfulness of the composition, color choices and the storytelling in the art. This group of students put a lot of thought into how to effectively communicate their artistic vision.”

Determining the winners of the SOAR competition was no easy feat. “It seriously took me a long time to judge,” Graham admitted. “I don’t think Dr. Jones or the art teachers expected that. Every student who participated should be very proud of themselves and should absolutely continue making art.”

Graham, a 1995 graduate of GV High School, credits the district’s art teachers with laying the foundation for his lifelong career in art. “In my sophomore year, Mr. Sutton told me I had enough talent to pursue art in college and beyond,” he reported. “I never really thought that was an option before he said that to me.”

Graham also credits Sheila Startup as being his most influential art teacher. “She will always be ‘Miss Mahoney’ to me,” Graham joked. “I was terribly shy in high school. Mrs. Startup played a big role in building my self-confidence, allowing me to become the person I am today. She taught me how to use oil paint, critiqued my work and pushed me to be better. Without her teaching and support, I really don’t think I would have had the confidence to put my art out there for the world to see.

“Looking back at my time at GVHS makes it clear how important those teachers are,” Graham continued. “Without their guidance, kindness and support, I probably would not have taken an artistic life so seriously. I hope art [continues to have] an important place in the curriculum of schools. Teaching young people to be creative is absolutely imperative.”

The winning artwork will be given a permanent home gracing the walls of the new GVSD Administrative Office building (now located at 301 Lindenwood Drive, Suite 210 in Malvern).

As Randall Graham pointed out, art should play an important role in a school’s curriculum – yet art programs are among the first thing cut when school budgets are slashed. GVSD students are extremely fortunate that the GVSD Education Foundation was created to help fund such innovative, enriching extracurricular programs. If you would like to donate to help the SOAR program, click below.