By Kaitlyn Butler
As seasons change, many prepare by swapping summer decor for pumpkins and forgoing an iced coffee for a pumpkin spiced latte. Within the walls of art classrooms all over Marion County, another type of transition is happening. In the weeks leading up to the weekend of October 26 and 27, art teachers are preparing for the biggest annual showcase of their students’ work, the 53rd Annual Ocala Arts Festival.
Each teacher is different. One speaks hurried in sentences that don’t really end or begin, flowing together. Another has a slow drawl that transports the listener to a front porch drinking sweet tea with lemon on a hot summer day. Many of them are artists themselves, working places like The Dalí Museum during the summer. They all hold an invaluable place in our classrooms, creating spaces that allow creativity to flourish.
The Ocala Arts Festival, presented by Fine Arts for Ocala and lovingly referred to as FAFO, is an opportunity to showcase all the work teachers pour into the classroom experience.
“Most teachers, I would say all of us, like to make it a showcase of what we did (in the classroom) at the end of last year and beginning of this year,” Staci Moore, an art teacher at Howard Middle School said. “It’s an opportunity to showcase our programs and all the hard work us teachers are putting in each and every day.”
The Student Art section of the Ocala Arts Festival highlights students from elementary to high school. Fifty-seven public school teachers and twenty-four private and homeschool teachers submit their students’ work for display in the public festival. For some students, it’s the first time they’ve been recognized for a positive school experience.
Veronica Eason, an art teacher at Marion Oaks Elementary School, recalls an experience she had with one of her kindergarten students. He was struggling academically and suffered a devastating setback in the traditional classroom. In art, however, he thrived.
“With art, he always felt successful and always had a smile,” Eason said of her student. “That was encouragement for him, and even when they had the ceremony, and he was there, he received the award, he was so happy. It boosted his self-confidence, and I could see a change in him after that. It was really encouraging, and the opportunity to make him feel like he could succeed was special.”
Beth Cannon, student art coordinator for FAFO, says seeing the students’ and teachers’ reactions is her favorite part of festival weekend. She said she remembers seeing how excited Eason was about her student being chosen for a purchase award. Despite teaching all week, Eason volunteered her time at the festival supporting her students.
“I just love seeing each child bringing their family members along, getting so jacked up about seeing their artwork on display,” Cannon said. “Especially, Jenkins (Auto Group) provides a ribbon for all elementary school students because, at that point, you are a winner because you’ve been chosen by your school to be there.”
The power of recognition does not stop at the elementary level. Moore says many students feel empowered after seeing their piece featured.
Jennifer Moore, the head of drawing and painting department in the MCCA program at West Port, submitted the piece of a sophomore last year. The 18” x 24” pen and ink piece took home Best in Show in 2018. She said the scale of the Ocala Arts Festival and the way the organization highlights student art is what makes the festival—and her student winning—so special.
“It’s one of the biggest festivals that Marion County has, and it is a mixture of both student work and professional artists who come from all over Florida,” Jennifer Moore said. “The variety of arts that are there—a lot of our dance students do performances and band—and they have a variety of the arts that are there, so the exposure of it and the location is really wonderful being downtown. I think that’s really unique, because the space, the way they utilize it, they try to make sure that for the students, they have a space that’s particularly designated for them.”
The winning piece was hand-drawn by Gabriela Cortes-Arroyo, an 11th-grade student at West Port High School. She completed the piece the summer before her sophomore year. “10,000 Hours,” the Best in Show piece depicts Cortes-Arroyo’s brother with his back to a trash can that is overflowing with crumpled paper balls. The extensive line work and size of the artwork can only be described as imposing and meticulous.
Cortes-Arroyo said she didn’t expect to see her piece selected for an award when she and her family visited the festival. In fact, they spent so much time looking at professional art booths that by the time she reached her piece, teachers were packing up.
“I saw that there was a ribbon on mine and I was excited to see that, so I went to go look at it,” Cortes-Arroyo said. “I saw it said Best in Show and I was very excited about that.”
Since the show, Cortes-Arroyo has gone on to compete in several other art competitions and taken home multiple awards. She said she hopes to enter more competitions, and has even researched how many awards she can enter and win each year. Cortes-Arroyo says winning the Ocala Arts Festival has impacted the way she views her own art.
“I think it’s given me some more confidence in my work,” Cortes-Arroyo said. “After FAFO, I more consistently started entering in pieces to art shows. I won three others after FAFO.”
Even beyond the scope of high school, the impacts of the student art section last for lifetimes. Beth Cannon says she remembers visiting the festival as a child to view her own artwork.
“The impact is huge,” she said. “Several FAFO board members’ first encounter with the FAFO arts festival was attending the festival to see their artwork on display in the student section.”
Teachers selecting art to submit rather than students submitting their art is what separates the Ocala Arts Festival from a lot of other competitions. Some schools have more than 250 art students, so being selected for the showcase is worth being recognized. In the late summer months, art teachers are finalizing projects so they can review and submit their most notable student pieces.
At Marion Oaks Elementary School, kindergarten students are learning the fundamentals of collage. Howard Middle School students are working on a recycling project. At West Port High School, the home of the visual and performing fine arts magnet program in Ocala known as MCCA (Marion County Center for the Arts), 11th-grade students are experimenting with surrealism.
These are just sample pieces that may be on display at the annual arts festival presented by FAFO. Each year art teachers in Marion County are given four panels on which to display their students’ work. Depending on the size of the pieces, they may display anywhere from four to 25 pieces of art.
Staci Moore says the number of students showcased each year depends on the work they have been doing in the classroom.
“There was a year that I had four panels, and I had four door-sized pieces, and they were so great that I only submitted four,” Staci Moore said. “There were other times that we did tiny little small things, so I could fit 15, 20, 25 — it just depends on the size of the work.”
According to Cannon, the judging for student art is based on criteria assessing how far along students should be in their art education. She said the student art show is its own show within the Ocala Arts Festival.
“The process of selecting works from each school essentially emulates the jurying process that the festival artists go through,” she said. “David Reutter (FAFO board member) secures a qualified judge for the middle and high school artwork. This judge gives out the best-in-show and other artistic awards of distinction. Jenkins Auto and Duke Energy provide ribbons and prize money for the winners, and the Appleton Museum hosts an awards reception in December.”
Though the student pieces are not for purchase at the festival, there are purchase awards at each student level. More valuable than the cash prizes are the invaluable confidence and impact the student art imparts on the students who are chosen to participate.
A resounding message came from each teacher: continue to support the arts. One way the community can encourage art education is to visit the student art section at the Ocala Arts Festival. High school art is located at Citizens’ Circle in downtown Ocala. Middle and Elementary art is located on SE Second Street just west of Citizens’ Circle.
“They (the students) get to experience the work of the professional artists that are out there and support Marion County so that more arts can happen,” said Jennifer Moore, “and they get to see what the real world is like once they graduate, the potential of what they can do with their art.”