Young Artists Learn Presentation at National Portfolio Day

Aspiring art students receive professional guidance at Corcoran-hosted event.

A student receives a critique of her work from a university representative at National Portfolio Day. (William Atkins/GW Today)
A student receives a critique of her work from a university representative at National Portfolio Day. (William Atkins/GW Today)
November 21, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

Savannah Wade likes to paint big.

In one self-portrait, she poses on a staircase against a rich yellow background, her chin tilted imposingly like a 17th-century monarch. In another, the figure of a young man—just awoken from sleep—looks softly out in glowing oranges and lush blues. The canvases seem nearly as tall as she is.

“I like the drama of large paintings, and the freedom of it,” she said. “And,” wryly indicating the crowd surrounding her, “they probably stand out.”

Ms. Wade, a senior at Georgetown Day School, joined more than 400 other students at the George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design Saturday as part of National Portfolio Day. Representatives from more than 50 schools had set up tables in the Flagg Building, where aspiring artists could have their work reviewed by professionals and learn about their educational options.

National Portfolio Day events are held around the country between September and January. The Corcoran School hosted another, in Atlanta, on Sept. 25.

“Hosting the National Portfolio Day here at the Corcoran’s Flagg building is a great example of how, even in the midst of a multi-phase renovation, the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design continues to play a vital role as a place where people can come together over a passion for creativity and diverse approaches to art and design education,” said Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School.

Some attendees came as part of a delegation, many with friends and parents. Art teachers Autumn Britt and Anna Deskins from St. Charles High School in Waldorf, Md., were there with two students.

“It’s important to bring them places like this so they can meet other talented kids,” said Ms. Deskins, who has been attending National Portfolio Day for five years.

Ms. Britt agreed, saying the event could also provide needed context for families. “If they don’t know anyone who does art for a living, this is one way for them to see that it’s something their kid could actually do,” she said.

Institutions represented ranged from the Parsons School of Design to the Rochester Institute of Technology and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Justin Plakas, a visiting assistant professor of fine arts at the Corcoran School, manned a table set up in the Flagg Building’s imposing marble entrance hall. Students lined up, some lugging massive leather portfolio bags while others balanced sketchbooks, laptops or canvases like Ms. Wade’s.

Mr. Plakas said his job on days like this is less to make artistic critiques than to suggest to the aspiring artists how they can effectively present themselves.

“These look really interesting—so you have to get better photographs,” he explained to Brittany Bagan, a senior from North Carolina who was showing him pictures of two clay sculptures. “I can’t tell what’s the floor and what’s part of the sculpture, because they’re both wood. You need to put this in a blank space in front of white paper, where it’s really clear what we’re looking at.”

Downstairs in the winding corridors of the lower level, Ms. Wade had made it to the front of the line to be evaluated by Stacy Jannis, a representative from the Rhode Island School of Design. Ms. Jannis, herself a RISD graduate, nodded thoughtfully as Ms. Wade turned over her work, commenting on a hyper-realistic chalk sketch of a mouth and hand.

When Ms. Wade hefted her first canvas onto the table, Ms. Jannis’s eyes lit up.

“Wow-ee!” she said, laughing. “That is so cool.”

“I’m always looking for ways to incorporate social justice into my work,” Ms. Wade said.  “So here I wanted to portray young black men in vulnerable ways—to kind of counter the aggressive image that’s in the media.”

“I love it,” Ms. Jannis said, leaning back. “Can I take a picture?”

On the building’s wide marble stairs, some were taking a quick break from the crowds before heading back inside. Myles Lam, a junior at Landon School in Bethesda, Md., has been attending National Portfolio Day for several years. Critiques from the representatives have helped him refine his portfolio, Mr. Lam said.

“It’s a little more cohesive, the flow is better,” he said.

The effort seems to be paying off.

A Parsons representative “called me Kanye West,” Mr. Lam said, smiling shyly. “I hope that’s good.”

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