WINTER GARDEN — A string of three or even four years of winning any high-school competition could be attributed to the performance of a single special student, not a special program, in the eyes of a cynic.
With its sixth consecutive Best of Show award among two-dimensional high-school entries at the annual Association of Christian Schools International Florida art show, the Foundation Academy art program leaves no doubt that it is something special. This year’s winner was Sophia Murray’s self-portrait.
Moreover, Foundation Academy won the two-dimensional middle-school Best of Show award this year, as well, which went to sixth-grader Carlos Alemany for “Fish.”
Add three years of 100% pass rates on AP Studio Art portfolio exams with an average score of four; four years of graduates attending art colleges such as Savannah College of Art and Design, Ringling College of Art and Design and Rhode Island School of Design; myriad awards at other shows throughout Central Florida; and a National Art Honor Society membership. Especially at a small school, some might call that an art dynasty.
How has Mary Ellen Murray, the school’s art teacher since 2006, grown a program seemingly full of budding prodigies?
“We don’t do artwork to win awards,” she said. “We never intended to. All I do is work on the classical approach to art, the basic elements of art and principles of design, like shading, proportion, perspective, color mixing — all of the basics. I really push the basics, but I let them take it in any direction.”
Mary Ellen Murray said she has never told her students exactly what to create, because success is a balance of teaching skills and giving students freedoms of creativity and failure.
“Take a risk — if you mess up and fail, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “And when they have that freedom and combine it, I feel like that has been a real strong point for the success of the program.”
That success continues at the college level, indicating there is no fluke to Mary Ellen Murray’s methodology, which stems from her knowledge as a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design.
“We actually got the Distinguished Scholarship Award, I think it’s called, from (Savannah College of Art and Design), the highest scholarship award, last year, for one of our students,” she said. “We actually have our first student graduating from art school this year in fashion design, and she already has a good internship with some fashion designer. That’s really great to see it on that next level.”
Seeing students’ art in shows around the area, including rather regular appearances at shows in Winter Garden, is also great to see, Mary Ellen Murray said. She welcomes students from outside the school to learn from her, as well, and anyone can become an artist, she said.
“It doesn’t matter what level they’re in,” she said. “People come on tours and they think, ‘Oh, my child can’t draw or paint,’ but that’s all right. We take them where they’re at, and that’s a good starting point. They go into Art 1, and they learn the basics. We see a lot of progress.”
Patience, encouragement and inspiration are critical facets of teaching art to any pupil, as opposed to demanding results, Mary Ellen Murray said. Children can become afraid of making mistakes as opposed to freely opening themselves to creative inspiration, which can be a brush with God, she said.
“I always say we’re tapping into the creative nature of God,” she said. “If you understand what that means, there’s freedom in that. The sky is the limit.”