A 17-year-old Lee's Summit artist is among those in the Kansas City area who now have something in common with Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath and Lena Dunham: a national medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
The list of past winners indicates the caliber of work a student must produce to win, and the possibility of winners' future influence on high and pop culture.
"Pop culture is probably the best art teacher. It's really what sparks interest in so many kids," says Brandon Briscoe, an art instructor at Lee's Summit West High School, whose student Savannah Meyer recently won a silver medal for her ink drawing "Deity."
"I didn't realize how prestigious it was until I won the award, and everyone was making a big deal out of it," Meyer says.
The Scholastic Awards were created in 1923 and are for students in grades 7-12. This season, students nationwide submitted 340,000 pieces of art and writing, and only the top 1% won at the national level. Nationwide, that amounts to 2,700, which comes out to about 22 students in the Kansas City metro area, including Meyer. (The closest winner of one of the only 16 gold awards was from Wichita.)
In middle school, Briscoe says, Meyer had been creating fan art — that is, drawings that were more or less in imitation of favorite artists or cartoons.
"By the time she came to us, she was making things that were probably more unique to her, but the residue of her childhood was still kind of present," he says.
He and the four other teachers in the art department could see that her talent was unique, so they presented her with technical and conceptual challenges to help her hone her skills.
"Even though, in terms of her expression, she really hadn't found a voice yet, there was just tons of raw talent in terms of her technical skill and ability and a desire to be creative," Briscoe says.
Meyer says she'd known about the contest through school and social media and entered a total of five pieces, all of which won top regional awards called gold keys.
"Deity" was the standout. It shows three goddesses — the battle-goddess Athena; goddess of victory, Nike; and the moon-goddess Selene — all of which Meyer says are representations of herself.
Briscoe says he understands why it was among the winners: The idea of the goddess figures, he says, isn't necessarily the most important element of the piece; rather, it's the conversation Meyer is having with herself.
Briscoe sees Meyer working through her "own personal significance, probably her own feminism, her own voice, her own self-empowerment, there's a sub-conversation going on underneath this simple, clean and beautiful imagery she's created."
Meyer says she created "Deity" when she was a sophomore and interested in mythology, and while she wishes she could say it had a deep meaning, she doesn’t think her work became complex until recently.
"I definitely grew a lot this year as an artist," she says.
So much so that she recently completed a mural commissioned by a bank president that's installed at Hawthorn Bank in the New Longview neighborhood of Lee's Summit, and a mural at the Lee's Summit R-7 School District’s aquatic center. Private commissions are regular enough that she doesn't have a job that might be more typical for a teenager.
She's already looking ahead to college, where she plans to study animation and storyboarding. Animation appeals to her as a way to marry art and story. For now, the tales she's telling are broad in their messaging, but also universal.
"I like to tell stories about, like, general human experience. I mean there's some LGBTQ things within my story references, coming to accept yourself and acceptance of life then loss of things and people," she says.
"I love telling stories and think that makes the world go round," Meyer adds. "Why I make art now is to make people feel something essentially through what I've made. And I think the easiest way to do that is to tell a good story," Meyer says. "And people love stories."