"Mr. Lark taught me how to see."
That's how Starkville High School 11th grader, Rayven Davis, summarizes her journey in creating the award-winning self portrait that will soon be displayed at the U.S. Capitol. Rayven was the overall Best of Show winner for Mississippi's 3rd Congressional District Art Competition. In the annual competition facilitated through Congressman Michael Guest's district office, the piece was chosen from dozens of entrants across multiple artistic categories to represent Mississippi's budding talent in Washington D.C. for the next year.
In addition to Rayven's highest honors, Starkville High School boasts four additional winning pieces in the competition, earning first place in Drawing as well as sweeping the top three honors in Photography.
Sachi Clay, a 9th grader, earned first place in Drawing for a charcoal "Self Portrait" as well as first place in Photography for her still life entitled "Randoseru". To round out the top Photography awards, 11th grader Allswell Nukpezah won 2nd place for her innovative portrait entitled "Adam and Eve," taken at her native home in Ghana, West Africa. Riley Suggs, also an 11th grader, won 3rd place for "Letters to Heaven," an image captured near her home in Oktibbeha County.
Nestled between the east parking lot and the main SHS building, the White House Studio has long been a hub of creativity and vibrant artistic talent on campus as Andrew Lark, the district's veteran award-winning art instructor, leads students through an exploration of artistic media and methods from drawing and sculpture to photography and fashion design.
When Rayven's Best of Show "Self Portrait" goes on display later this year, it will mark the 20th time the work of Starkville High School students has been displayed at the Capitol building.
Each of the award-winning students credit Mr. Lark's teaching methods, both in and outside their regular class time, with helping them to hone their vision and voice. The rigorous exploration of artistic methods has become a way of finding themselves and growing confidence in their own skills.
Rayven describes the process of creating her award-winning piece as the culmination of a year-long journey of learning through the SHS Visual Arts 3 class that was sometimes challenging and even painful as Mr. Lark helped her find her own visual style. Much of her experience in art had been mimicking anime artists she discovered, and she admits it took some time to break out of that style as she sought a more refined and realistic approach.
"There were times when habits from anime showed up in my work which forced me to redo the entire thing," she shared about her class projects. "There were times when nothing I brought in would get the praise and affirmation all the other students were getting no matter how much love was put into it."
Finally, a new way of seeing began to take hold through Mr. Lark's instruction, and Rayven gained more confidence. "He taught me how to use shapes to get accurate proportions and to create things that follow the laws and principles of design," Rayven said. "He made the things that look impossible, like the things the masters did in the past, seem so easy."
Allswell shares a similar sentiment as she describes Mr. Lark's leadership. Although she has not actually been enrolled in one of the SHS art classes, she was inspired to meet the instructor through conversations with Rayven. She began visiting the White House Studio before and after school to get individualized instruction.
"When I was introduced to Mr. Lark," she said, "he inspired me to pick up the camera to learn fine art photography that I could turn into drawings. I think photography can tell a story almost instantly."
Riley has completed the Photography 2 class this year, and plans to take Photography 3 and 4 during her Senior year. "I’ve always found joy in taking photos," she said. "Capturing something so meaningful has always sparked an interest for me. I also have enjoyed learning so much more about the art from Mr. Lark."
As a 9th grader, Sachi is just beginning her high school art journey, but has enjoyed the mentorship of Mr. Lark as well as upperclassmen who are more experienced in the classes. "Thanks to Mr. Lark, I am learning the professional side of both photography and art," Sachi said. "Without this program, I would have never have been able to do a fraction of what I am doing today."
As the winner of two First Place awards, Sachi has shared a little of her own heritage in each piece. "My photo 'Randoseru' was inspired by the different parts of my Japanese culture," she said. "I used my old Japanese backpack alongside traditional items to create a quiet atmosphere."
When describing the impact of her "Self Portrait" drawing, she hopes viewers are inspired to embrace diversity and representation. "As someone who is biracial," she shared, "I hope I can encourage people who see this drawing to start drawing different types of people, and give representation to your unique culture."
As the Overall Winner of Mississippi's 3rd Congressional District Art Competition, Rayven will have the opportunity travel to Washington D. C. for the unveiling of her work. "I was talking to my mom about going to the US Capitol, and she always dreamed of going to a place like that when she was a little girl," Rayven shared. "I find it really unbelievable!"
When asked about what she hopes viewers from across the nation will learn about her from the "Self Portrait" she created, Rayven is quick to focus on her faith. "All there is to be seen in this piece is what GOD did," she said. She's grateful that Mr. Lark was able to help her discover a talent and purpose she believes God has had for her all along. "There is nothing to be seen about my life and much less anything to be seen about me. All I ask is that the viewer, while looking at this piece, move me out the way, move the person you see in the piece out the way, and give God glory."