When William L. Dickinson High School senior Zury Arce was 12, she did a painting that was, as she remembers it, roundly criticized by one of her teachers.
“I was told I wasn’t good enough,” Arce recalled. “She told me I would never be good enough.”
When the teacher got pregnant and went out on maternity leave, the determined student saw an opportunity.
“I made it my goal to get into the Jersey City Arts program,” she added.
With time, and with the guidance of a more supportive teacher, Arce was later able to put together a polished portfolio and became one of a handful of Jersey City students accepted into the competitive program designed to train artistically talented teens for college-level arts programs. This year, Arce was accepted into the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City for the fall semester.
Along the way, she has received numbers accolades for her artwork, including a national honor from Scholastic.
Arce is among 16 high school seniors from across the city whose work is currently being exhibited at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre through Tuesday, May 28 as part of Jersey City Arts’ end of the year student showcase. This year, the graduating class was collectively offered more than a total of $1.7 million in merit scholarship money alone. Students in the program have been accepted into some of the top art schools in the nation, including Parsons, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Visionary Studio at New York University, Delaware College of Art and Design, and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation.
While run out of Henry Snyder High School, Jersey City Arts is open to any Jersey City student who has significant artistic talent and who plans to study art in college. Students must apply to and be accepted into the program to participate.
“We do select students to come into the program,” said Carolyn Frazier, the senior level arts teacher. “But it’s only based on their artistic talent.”
This year’s graduating class includes students from McNair Academic, Hudson County Prep, Liberty, Dickinson, and Snyder high schools. In total, there are about 60 students currently enrolled in the arts component of program. (Overall, Jersey City Arts also includes a theater component and a music component as well.)
Approximately 100 students apply each year for acceptance and roughly 35 to 40 are admitted.
Students enrolled in Jersey City Arts take their academic classes in their neighborhood schools, or wherever they are enrolled full-time, but spend 90 minutes a day at Snyder focusing on their arts concentration.
‘I made it my goal to get into the Jersey City Arts program.’ – Zury Arce
“When you join the program, they teach you the proper techniques,” said Jersey City Arts sophomore Lauraine Kakilala. “Freshman and second year you’re working in charcoal and a little watercolor and color pencils, although they give us sketch books and we do at least two sketches every weekend. For that we can do more of what we want. We can use different media. For senior year, their main thing is acrylics, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
The Jersey City Arts student exhibition at the Loew’s highlights the work of the program’s graduating seniors on the theater’s first floor. But upstairs the work of juniors and underclassmen is exhibited as well.
Painting what you know
Like many writers, most of the students in the program said last week they started out painting what they know – family members, classmates, Jersey City and New York landscapes – but with more confidence and experience have started branching out.
Dilenia Rodriguez, another Dickinson High School senior enrolled in Jersey City Arts, was initially inspired to paint images of young runners on her school track team and hibiscus flowers, the national flower of her native Dominican Republic. More recently, she has been painting mixed media abstracts of the New York skyline.
“In this city, the Dominican kids have a [negative] reputation…People don’t see the good in us and this flower, which we call La Sangre de Cristo (the blood of Christ), represents the good in us,” said Rodriguez.
The repeating flower motif has been incorporated into some of her track and field paintings, she said, “to represent the femininity in these runners, who I also depict as really strong and athletic.”
Rodriguez was admitted into the competitive RISD, where she will enroll in the fall.
Arce has also looked to her own personal history for inspiration in her work.
“I based all of my work senior year on my family,” said Arce, pointing to a painting of her late maternal grandmother. “She passed away when my mom was 20. I never really met the people in these paintings. I know who they are. I know they are my family and I know I am related to them. But I painted them without eyes because I don’t know what their interests were, what they were into. I believe eyes are the window to the soul, and since I don’t understand who they were as people, you’ll see, they don’t have eyes since I never got to see into their souls.”
The paintings, she explained, were based on old family photos she saw when she traveled to El Salvador, where each of her parents was born.
Arce has decided to defer enrollment to Parsons School of Design so she can return to El Salvador to meet other relatives and get to know more about her family’s history, an experience that is likely to find its way into the tip of a paintbrush again.
Arce, Rodriguez, and the other graduating seniors will have “exit” shows at locations throughout the city this month and next that will further demonstrate their evolution as emerging artists. These shows will be held at Newport Towers, City Hall, the Distillery Gallery, and Art House Productions.
The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre, which is hosting the Jersey City Arts group exhibit, is located at 54 Journal Square. For information regarding the theater’s hours, call (201) 789-6055. Admission to the exhibit is free.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.