Full STEAM Ahead

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By Linda T. Kennedy

ARTfactory staff and professional artists honored high school students throughout Prince William for their
submissions in the Gallery’s 19th annual Off the Wall competition and show in January. Over 200 submissions were received, but only 44 works were accepted. ARTfactory Gallery Director Jordan Exum said the annual event helps students launch their post-secondary educational and professional careers.

“The exhibition and competition is a great resume builder for students as it gives them firsthand experience exhibiting in a professional art gallery in the DMV region,” said Exum. “Students are displayed in a professional art gallery just as any other artist in our gallery would be displayed, and it’s a learning experience for them to understand that being an artist is a full-time professional career, and it is within the realm of possibilities.”

The competition and show, though, are not only about art.

Lockheed Martin sponsors the annual competition to encourage Manassas youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM), using their art to build skills in those high-growth fields. At the end of ARTfactory’s show, the exhibition travels to Lockheed Martin’s Manassas campus for its employees to enjoy.

“Additionally, students involved in OTW are invited to Lockheed Martin at the end of the ARTfactory exhibit for a private tour and reception at Lockheed’s grounds in Manassas,” said Exum. “The students have the opportunity to view LM labs, speak with employees, and check out potential job opportunities within the STEAM field.”

ARTfactory Legends

RJ Weaver was one of the first Manassas students to participate in the Art and Technology category and won first place two years in a row. He went on to study industrial engineering at Virginia Tech.

“Post high school, it’s been so inspiring to see what doors can open when you share your passion with others, and Off the Wall was a wonderful opportunity to showcase my work with the community at a young age,” said Weaver. “Also, having the chance to tour behind-the-scenes at Lockheed Martin gave me a great understanding of how my skills in 3D design could apply to industry — before even going to college. Being involved in such a competition was quite beneficial to defining what paths I would pursue in university and beyond.”

Students often return to compete in OTW multiple times, said Exum, sometimes inspiring new categories for the competition.

1st place Wearable Art Winner OTW 2017, Leon Sunga (designer and winner) and model Stephanie Mora

“Leon Sunga paved the way for the Wearable Art category in the Off the Wall competition,” said Exum. “He won first place in the Wearable Art category more than once, and always wowed the audience with his unique, innovative designs.”

For his first exhibition in 2016, Sunga made a paper dress with no prior experience creating garments. He created a wearable dress out of old book pages, tape, and crystal ribbon, that didn’t fall apart when worn. His success inspired him to enter the competition throughout his high school career.

“Participating in the show sparked my interest in fashion design which is what I decided to pursue after high school,” said Sunga. “Currently, I am completing my final year at VCU’s [Virginia Commonwealth University’s] fashion design program and intend on working in the fashion industry post grad,” said Sunga.

Seasons of Growth

Exum said the Prince William community looks forward to viewing the annual OTW exhibition to celebrate the talented local youth and their artwork.

“Many of the pieces feature local scenery and landscapes making it a very relatable and community driven exhibition, too,” she said.

Nicholas Austin-Wakefield won second place in the 2020 OTW competition for his mixed media piece, “Seasons.” The public’s response to his work motivated his next steps. “It brought me great joy watching crowds of people walk around the gallery space to observe and discuss the various artworks,” Wakefield said. “The event solidified my understanding of the concept that art is important and can lead to fundamental societal discourse. This revelation influenced me to apply to and attend my dream school, the Rhode Island School of Design, as an illustrator, where I continue to improve my artistic abilities and prompt discussion within my pieces.”

All the students were required to submit a context statement with their work, providing viewers with a story about how they developed their art. Elizabeth Brittingham, a first-time exhibitor in the new photography competition, inspired Exum and other OTW officials with her statement about her “Divergent Femininity” photograph.

ARTfactory, Off the wall

1st Place (19th Annual or 2022/2023): Elizabeth Brittingham, Divergent Femininity, Colgan High School

“When given the opportunity to work with the dance students at my school, I immediately knew what I wanted to depict,” said Brittingham. “In a sport with a domineering expectation of what its participants should look like, I felt passionately about showing the reality of those participating. True, hard-working students who embrace their differences and each other within the field. This photograph was taken after numerous jumps and turns. Tired and exhausted, I prompted the dancers to lay down and look up at the camera.”

After reading Brittingham’s statement, Exum said she realized the depth of meaning in Brittingham’s work beyond the compositions of the photo. Brittingham won first place in the competition.

“I have found that by including a context statement, the artwork and poetry submitted is much more impactful, and also adds a special personal connection for the viewer or reader to hear from the artist or poet directly,” said Exum.

Exum said she noticed a significant improvement in the students’ pieces when they returned another year to compete. Category winners take away cash prizes, but Exum said the students gain far more than monetary returns. The competition also allows students to see how their artistic, technical, and creative skills evolve, preparing them for future success.

“Not only can the exhibit be added to their resume for future careers and college applications, the competition is also helpful for building skill sets such as responsibility and accountability for the students,” she said. “They are given specific instructions and requirements, a deadline, and the opportunity to fulfill a goal which then rewards them in the end.”

Linda Kennedy is a contributing writer for Prince William Living.


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