Emilio Martinez's first exposure to art came early in life, when his parents took him to the Visionary Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"I think I was, like, an infant," said the Roland Park native.
But his first exposure may have been even earlier, in his DNA.
"I've always had an affinity for art," he said.
Now 18 and a senior at Friends School, Martinez has won a gold medal in the 2012 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
The awards are promoted as the largest and longest-running arts national scholarship program for teens.
He will receive his medal at Carnegie Hall in New York on June 1. Past recipients include author Truman Capote, poet Sylvia Plath, pop artist Andy Warhol, actor Robert Redford and photographer Richard Avedon.
In addition, his winning sculpture, "Inside-Out House," will be on exhibit at the Parsons New School for Design in New York through June 16.
But the best is yet to come for Martinez — a distinction so prestigious that he still can't believe his good fortune.
He has been accepted to arguably the most prestigious and competitive art school in the nation, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, also in New York.
As well as a feather in his cap and Friends School's, his acceptance to Cooper Union is financial coup for his family.
Fortified by a $577 million endowment as of 2010, the 153-year-old art, engineering and architecture school offers full $37,500-a-year scholarships to each student.
Cooper Union is considering charging tuition for the first time in more than a century, reportedly due to money troubles in a weak economy. But even if the college does start charging tuition, it would not start with next year's freshmen.
"The class of fall 2012 will not be charged tuition," said Jolene Travis, a Cooper Union spokeswoman.
"I'm glad that my parents don't have to pay for college," Martinez said.
Martinez said his fascination with art can be traced all the back to his early visits to art museums. One that impressed him the most as a child was Alexander Calder's "100 Yard Dash," a massive, red steel sculpture at the BMA.
Martinez wrote his college entrance essay about his growth as an artist, "starting with my memory of that," he said.
"I still visit all the time."
As a student at a local Montessori school, Martinez said, he visited art classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
His parents, Wilton Martinez, an independent filmmaker, and his mother, Patricia Poppe, who works for the Center for Communications Programs at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, lived in Lima, Peru, in the early 2000s. When they returned, they enrolled him at Friends, a Quaker school, as a fifth grader, because it was less traditional than other area schools, he said.
"I've really grown here, and I appreciate the philosophy," said Martinez, whose family now lives in Dickeyville.
Under the tutelage of Benjamin Roach, the upper school art department chairman, Martinez has flourished. He curates a student art gallery in Friends' Forbush building. The gallery includes a self-portrait of him bare-chested and wearing on his head a white bag that he made, with black stripes and a chinstrap.
There are many student artworks in the gallery as striking as his, from a creche-like circus tableau to a face made of pieces of cork and other found objects.
But Martinez has an aggressive will to succeed and make sure his work gets noticed that separates him from the pack, Roach said.
"He's not going to wait on you," Roach said.
Roach noted that although he had not publicized the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition much to his art students, Martinez sought it out and attacked it artistically.
For the competition, Martinez built a miniature "inside-out house" that included photos in the windows, looking in and out. It was representative of eight houses he has lived in, in two different countries, he said. It was the kind of house that people could hold in the palm of their hand — a "nurturing" house, he said.
"He had something worth sharing and he shared it," Roach said. "Not every (student) has that work ethic. He is going the extra mile to get his work out there and share it and defend it. That's what special."
And Martinez is not afraid of an artistic challenge.
Cooper Union gave applicants six art assignments to do in a month, each within the confines of a small box. Studying for final exams at Friends, Martinez had to do his Cooper Union assignments in two weeks.
"I spent all winter break in my basement toiling away," he said.
It has paid off in free tuition and, more than the money, in respect.
"I take my work seriously and I'm really glad other people do, too," he said.
He has kind words for the Maryland Institute College of Art, a well-respected hometown school.
"I wish MICA wasn't in Baltimore," he said, grinning. "MICA's a great school, but I gotta get out of here."
And, sounding like an ad campaign, he added, "I love New York."
MoMA in his future?
He's most excited about joining a small school with 60 art students — "a whole community not paying. Everybody's equalized."
And he has great plans for his future, maybe as an art history teacher, or a curator, or maybe, just maybe a famous sculptor, like his heroes Calder and Louise Bourgeois.
How about being a starving artist?
"I'm prepared," he said. "But I'm looking forward to not being that."
He's thinking more in terms of being exhibited someday at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"I'd love to end up at the MoMA," he said. "But who wouldn't?"