Portrait by a young artist is national award winner

Fairfield Ludlowe High School sophomore Rachel Finlaw has always had an artistic eye, but the young lady who could draw and paint with ease entered into uncharted waters at the start of the school year when she took Michele Hermsen's Introduction to Photography class. Could her talents carry over to picture-taking? Would she get a decent grade?

Rachel's artistic eye didn't betray her. Her "Portrait of Elsa," which Hermsen felt was worthy of entering in the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers' Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, won her a national gold award. Past recipients have included, among others, Joyce Carol Oates and John Lithgow, all of whom received recognition when they were in high school.

"We're so over the moon about this award for her," said Kathy Finlaw, Rachel's mother. "We could not be more proud of her."

The Board of Education acknowledged Rachel's accomplishment Tuesday night during its "Moment of Pride." One family member who didn't have to go out of her way to be there was Sarah Finlaw, who sits at the table with the board as a student liaison. Whereas Sarah excels academically, her younger sister excels artistically. She uses her right brain more than her left.

Before Rachel won her national award, she earned a "Gold Key" at the regional level. Across the nation, more than 150,000 works of art and writing were submitted to the regional affiliates of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Ten-thousand of those submissions were reviewed at the national level, according to Hermsen. Those who win a national award, such as Rachel, are eligible for scholarships-- from $500 to full tuition -- at more than 60 colleges, universities and art institutes across the country that provide $3.9 million in art and writing scholarships.

The awards program doesn't just honor the young artists and writers. It also recognizes the teachers who mentored them. As a result, Hermsen has also been honored with a gold medal and will accompany Rachel to Carnegie Hall on June 9 for the awards ceremony.

"This is probably, in my career, the biggest honor that is being physically bestowed on me," she said. While in NYC, the two will also attend workshops with master artists and will see the display of award-winning entries that includes Rachel's work at the World Financial Center's gallery. Visitors can take an audio tour of the exhibit, and when they press "174," they will hear a recording by Rachel describing her piece.

What is it about "Portrait of Elsa" that makes it special? While it looks like it could have been taken in Europe, it was actually taken in Hermsen's classroom. Elsa Johnson, Rachel's friend, came in from her art class to model for her.

"Elsa looks really quite innocent," Hermsen said, "But if you look at the picture as a whole, there's a risqueness. The teen' subject's face is offset by large earrings and a dressy sweater juxtaposed with short denim shorts. Also, the teen is sitting on a red ball.

"It really portrays a young teenager coming into her own," Hermsen said, "On the borderline of a child, but entering more of an adult world."

Elsa's face, she added, "looks so innocent, yet the earrings and the shorts really tell a story about who she wants to be."

Hermsen's students had the option of shooting their subjects under studio lights, inside with natural light and outside with natural light. Rachel chose inside with natural light. Shadow from a window helps to frame the subject.

"The shadows in the background help to create a dimension in the photograph, added depth," Hermsen said.

"All of these things," said the photography teacher, "added up to the caliber of artwork the judges were looking for."`

There are photographers who probably spend hours trying to take a photo worthy of critical acclaim. Rachel's shot of Elsa came together in about 15 minutes -- after a fire drill.

"When we were outside waiting in the parking lot to be let back into school I was telling Elsa about the portraits we were taking and asked her if she wanted to be my subject," Rachel said. "Thank God she told me she would be. For the rest of the class, after we were let in from the fire drill, I just set Elsa up in front of the backdrop, fixed the lighting and got to work. I really had no idea that one of the pictures I was about to take in the remaining 15 minutes of class was going to be a national award-winning picture.

"It's unbelievable. This picture wasn't posed at all. Elsa has a lot of originality about her and I think this picture perfectly sums her up. I really got this shot by luck and I think it perfectly portrays Elsa as the beautiful, unique person that she is."

Hermsen added that the award-winning shot was among the first three shots Rachel snapped.

She said of Rachel: "She's open to all ideas, criticism and she's got a really positive attitude. She's a very easy student to teach."

Hermsen said the best photographs tell a story, contain emotional content, make the viewer want to ask questions.

While Rachel loves taking photos of everything, she prefers taking portraits of people. She finds it interesting to capture a person in a special moment or a certain point in time.

"A portrait of someone can say a lot about someone's life or personality even if you don't know the subject of the picture," she said.

Rachel currently uses a Canon PowerShot SD1200 to capture her images, but now that she's a national award winner, an upgrade may be in store.

"Before we go to New York for the ceremony and workshops for Scholastic I think we are going to look into getting a newer and better camera," she said.