Like many artists before her, Lisa Su has found inspiration from the intricate patterns and textures found in nature: the red seeds from the inside of a pomegranate, barnacles adhering to a rock.
Yet the materials she uses are not beautiful or intricate. They are the stuff we throw away: old newspapers, egg shells, plastic bags, pencil shavings and light bulbs.
Su's work, which ranges from the realistic bust of her friend to the abstract paper pulp sculpture that is reminiscent of barnacles, has earned her recognition as one of the top high school visual artists in the nation.
The Portfolio Gold Medal winner of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Su, 18, is one of eight artists in the nation to receive the award out of thousands of entries. While Scholastic recognizes many winning artists each year, only eight portfolio gold medal awards in art and eight in writing are given out.
Su, a Washington Carver School for the Arts and Technology senior, will accept her award at Carnegie Hall on June 17. Her work will be part of a traveling exhibition this coming year and she will receive a $10,000 cash scholarship.
Her teacher, Joe Cypressi, describes her work as "beautiful and thoughtful" and adds that it has grown tremendously in her four years at the school.
"I think the quiet sensitivity is there in the work, but it still has a presence," said Cypressi, who is department chair for the visual arts department and the sculpture teacher.
In a sense, Su began her sculpting as a child, when she made yarn dolls, but her road to Carver, where her focus on art became far more serious, began one summer during middle school. She had gone to a theater camp, where a counselor took some of the campers aside and talked to them about her experiences at the Carver Center, encouraging them to apply and mentioning that Carver had a visual arts program.
Su decided at that moment she would apply to the magnet high school in Towson.
Carver's sculpture classes require students to focus on representational work at the beginning, but allow them to use new media in their sophomore and junior years, Su said. That was when she began experimenting.
"I really enjoyed plastic bottles, coffee filters, egg shells," said Su, who added that since then she has focused on "taking a common material and using it in a new way."
Her hands full of wet paper pulp made of newspapers and glue, Su worked on her barnacle sculpture recently in the corner of the cavernous, state-of-the-art sculpting studio in Carver's building, which opened less than two years ago.
She pinched small pieces of the pulp onto a wire, saying she was not trying to emulate the barnacle, even though the shape is suggestive of it. On one side the sculpture is rough and painted dark green; on the back she has filled the barnacle holes with red satin fabric that looks like soft muscle or flesh.
"You don't expect the red," she said.
Next fall, she will attend the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. While she is still undecided about her major, she said she believes it will be industrial design or sculpture.
"I like working three-dimensionally," she said.
The last time a Maryland student received a Portfolio Gold Medal award was in 2009, when Celia Bell, a Bryn Mawr student, won in the writing category. The last Maryland artists were two students from Baltimore County schools, in 2008: Rodney Jones of Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts and Jordan Stearns of Carver.
About four dozen Maryland students won silver or gold awards in writing and art categories this year.
The nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists and Writers has given the prestigious awards since 1923. The Scholastic Awards are the longest-running awards for students in grades seven to 12. Former winners include Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Robert Redford, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King and John Updike.