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This painting titled "A Sunday Afternoon Re-Creation," by North Kingstown High School freshman MaryKate Hanus is included in the 30th Biennial Young Adult Exhibition at Hera Gallery in Wakefield.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — While the past year has robbed many high school art students of the opportunity to create and display their work as they typically would, students from nine area high schools, including North Kingstown High School and South Kingstown High School, get to see their work on display in a professional study, as the Hera Gallery hosts its 30th Annual Young Adult Exhibition through Feb. 27.

The exhibit, which takes place every other February — alternating with the Biennial Children’s Exhibit — features nearly 150 pieces of fine art and poetry by art students from NKHS and SKHS, along with Rogers High School, Lincoln High School, Rocky Hill Day School, Exeter West Greenwich High School, Cranston High School, Westerly High School and LaSalle Academy.

“It’s such a great opportunity, especially for the high school age, because so many of these students are more serious art students,” Hera Gallery Director Sarah Swift said. “Many of them are starting to consider career paths (in the arts) and we have juniors and seniors, many of whom are really interested in the arts and for them, not only is this their first gallery show, it’s great because they have photos for potential portfolios to send to colleges and it just gives them a really great experience being in a real gallery. And if anything else, actually, we really love the idea that many of the students may go on to becoming Hera members in the future.”

Swift should know, as she was once one of those students.

“I was an Exeter West Greenwich student many years ago and remember Hera Gallery, so it’s wonderful coming back full-circle now as the director,” Swift said. “I honestly wouldn’t have even known of Hera that early on if it hadn’t been for the Young Adult show.”

As a high school junior in 2009, Swift, who said she practically lived in the art room in high school, had her work submitted by her teacher, Elizabeth Lind, and still remembers what it was like to find out she was selected and to see her work in the gallery.

“As a junior I had been getting ready to apply for art schools and was really starting to seriously consider going into an art field,” Swift said. “When I had work selected, that was just the coolest feeling, because you get that moment where you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, I could be a real artist one day.’”

Twelve years later, though the circumstances may be different — due to COVID-19, the opening ceremony, like other recent Hera opening ceremonies, took place entirely over Zoom Saturday evening — Swift said it means everything to her that she was able to provide students with the same platform and opportunity she was given as a student.

“Especially through COVID, and in a year with such disappointment, to be able to showcase this, I mean, we have work in this space that’s just unbelievably beautiful,” Swift said. “These kids are so talented and they deserve to have their work seen and I think they’ve had to sacrifice so many other normal things this year (that) it’s almost like a small win for them to be able to have something like this... they’ll have a gallery show on their resume, they will have photos of their work in a gallery space.”

Swift said she was particularly impressed by the timeliness and impactfulness of the exhibit’s fine art and poetry submissions.

“So many pieces are really contemporary and relevant. (In) the written word submissions, we have so many pieces that are really powerful and really on the button of current events, and I’m really impressed about how much of a part of the dialogue these students are,” Swift said. “Politically, socially, environmentally, there are some really wonderful works.”

The show was juried by its two components, with Out of the Box Studios Director and frequent Hera collaborator Casey Weibust serving as the art juror, while Rhode Island Youth Poetry Ambassador Halima Ibrahim served as poetry juror.

Swift was particularly happy to get Ibrahim on board, which she said happened through a personal connection between her and one of the Hera board members.

“Halima was found through Mara Trachtenberg, who is one of our board members and member artists. She is a URI and CCRI professor and she actually had Halima as a student,” Swift said. “Oh my gosh, she was such a phenomenally bright student, so we were so pleased to be able to have her on board.”

The written component is relatively new to the show, having first been introduced with the last Young Adult Exhibit in 2019, which Swift said was such a success that Hera decided to keep it going.

“It went so well, people were so excited about it that we decided we’re going to do it permanently now each year along with the fine art work,” Swift said. “We did an open call and anyone was allowed to submit. Any high school student who submitted will be displayed here at the gallery.”

Swift also believes the exhibit serves two purposes: giving the students experience with a real professional exhibit, and showing the public the talent that can be found in the art rooms and English classes — or houses, for those in distance learning — of Rhode Island.

“Just being in a professional gallery, you start to learn how things are hung, how things are labeled, how we run an opening reception or event, and especially — we’ve only just started doing these virtual ones, but that’s really important, I think, for these young artists to see how artist talks are run,” Swift said. “I think between that and then just the network and community, it’s so wonderful, I think, for South County, for family and friends in the community, to be able to come in and just see the talent that’s coming out of Rhode Island. (While) installing we’ve had people pop in and just be unbelievably floored by the quality and the breaths of work, there’s such diversity, so I think it’s great for our students and it’s great for our community too to really showcase the talents of our students.”

She’s also impressed by the students’ ability to produce these works and the teachers’ ability to instruct and facilitate despite the challenges they’ve faced over the past year, and believes that should be celebrated.

“I think it’s great for the students, it’s great for the teachers to really show off what the school is doing and what their students (are doing), and I just think, especially through COVID, the students and the teachers have been through so much, pivoting in and out of classrooms and virtual learning. Especially, I think, in the arts — and I’d also say music too — I don’t know how they’re doing it; it’s so tough because so much of it is hands-on, in person,” Swift said. “We have some phenomenal ceramics in the show which I think is so crazy because so many teachers said they didn’t even have kilns to fire artwork and students couldn’t get into the school, so it’s really such a testament to the effort and the perseverance of the students and the teachers through such a crazy year.”

The Young Adult Exhibition runs during Hera’s normal gallery hours of 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays at the Hera Gallery at 10 High Street in Wakefield. Pictures and video of the talk are available on Hera’s website, heragallery.org.

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