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Female artists to watch: Meet these talented young leaders in the arts in Howard County

Mount Hebron high school graduate Samantha Yakaitis is a rising star in musical theater for Howard magazine story on aspiring female artists.
Mount Hebron high school graduate Samantha Yakaitis is a rising star in musical theater for Howard magazine story on aspiring female artists. (Kenneth K. Lam)

It surfaced last month at her high school graduation party, an 8-year-old video of Samantha Yakaitis and her cousin hamming it up for the camera.

“My cousin was dancing as I was singing ‘Let It Go’ from the movie ‘Frozen,’ " Yakaitis said. “I kept brushing my hands out and shoving her to the side to make sure that I was the center of attention while singing my face off like I was the best thing ever. At the party, we watched it, laughing, because that was me throughout childhood — loud and talkative.”

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Even then, the budding thespian was chasing the spotlight — and a dream. Yakaitis, 18, an honor student at Mount Hebron High, heads to Marymount Manhattan College in New York this fall to study musical theater.

“I will be there, in ‘the room where it happens,’ when Broadway is reopening [after the pandemic] and everything is bustling again,” she said. “I want to expand my palette in college, network with people and do off-Broadway plays, comedy clubs and improvs, exploring it all to find what’s best for me.”

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Like the other aspiring female artists featured here, Yakaitis received a scholarship from the Howard County Arts Council for her pursuits. She leaves with a juicy resume, including four professional stage productions at Toby’s Dinner Theater in Columbia and a slew of community theater and school shows dating back to first grade. Even on Halloween, dressed as Cindy-Lou Who or the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz,” she would belt out a show tune on people’s doorsteps, if asked.

Her roles have run the gamut, from young Mary Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” to Lola in “Damn Yankees” to the Wicked Witch of the West in “Oz.”

Samantha Yakaitis, as Annie, sings to Sandy, a canine actor, in Laurel Mill Playhouse's 2012 production of "Annie".
Samantha Yakaitis, as Annie, sings to Sandy, a canine actor, in Laurel Mill Playhouse's 2012 production of "Annie". (Photo by Larry SImmons, Laurel Mill Playhouse)

Playing villains is a favorite, she said: “I love to step into the roles of people who aren’t like me because I have to stretch myself as an actor. I don’t put myself in a box.”

That’s a mantra she shares with her mother, Robyn Yakaitis, who studied musical theater at Syracuse University and who has appeared with her daughter in community productions such as “Annie,” playing Miss Hannigan to Samantha’s starring role.

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“Mom got to pull me by my ear, on stage, and boss me around,” she said. “That didn’t take much acting for her; Mom said it was just like home.”

There have been gaffes, for sure.

“I’ve forgotten lines, covered up for others, flipped some verses in songs and tripped and ripped my skirt while running offstage,” Yakaitis said. “I’ve never been a crazy-strong dancer; I’ve got to work on that in college.”

The spotlight awaits.

“I feed off the energy the audience gives back to me,” she said. “I love belting out that final note and seeing the joy on their faces as to how I’ve impacted them. That’s my favorite thing.”

Kianna Pan is a visual artist and recent graduate of River Hill High School, bound for Rhode Island School of Design in the fall. She holds up two of her completed pieces, "Snacks and Crafts," left, and "Imagination Company" during a portrait session for Howard Magazine.
Kianna Pan is a visual artist and recent graduate of River Hill High School, bound for Rhode Island School of Design in the fall. She holds up two of her completed pieces, "Snacks and Crafts," left, and "Imagination Company" during a portrait session for Howard Magazine. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Finding her calling

Her allegorical paintings beg tales to be told. Her digital art suggests Pixar at work. For Kianna Pan, 18, drawing is foremost in her life, so much so that, at River Hill High, she’d turn in assignments and tests on which she’d absently doodled a picture or two. No matter.

“As long as I was paying attention and getting good grades, my teachers didn’t mind,” Pan said. “Art is a very big part of me; I’ve even put my iPhone on my paint palette [to talk], though once I colored it yellow.”

Come fall, she’ll attend the Rhode Island School of Design, having graduated from a Howard County school steeped more in math and science than in art. It was at River Hill, as a freshman, that she took an art class, on a whim, to fill out her schedule — and found her calling.

Kianna Pan is a visual artist and recent graduate of River Hill High School, bound for Rhode Island School of Design in the fall.
Kianna Pan is a visual artist and recent graduate of River Hill High School, bound for Rhode Island School of Design in the fall. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

“I didn’t do still lifes or pictures of fruit and stuff,” said Pan. “My teachers had me leave my comfort zone and experiment.”

Her work, often laced with fantasy, conjures up colorful and imaginary worlds shaped by her own reflective struggles. One painting portrays a Tolkien-like landscape in which a girl, engrossed in a book, glides downstream in a boat, oblivious to a jumble of doors — i.e., life’s choices — that seem to beckon from the shore.

“It’s about trying to find one’s identity, and a feeling of life passing you by,” said Pan, who lives in Highland. “Most of my work has an element of story to it.”

As such, she’d like to work on animated movies like “WALL-E,” the 2008 heart-wrencher about a lonely futuristic robot.

“I’m inspired by how [the filmmakers] could express so much personality in a film without dialogue, using just movements,” Pan said.

Her wheels are turning already.

Susan Kim, a lifelong violinist, former first-chair in the all-state orchestra and recent graduate of Long Reach High School will be heading to Johns Hopkins University in the fall.
Susan Kim, a lifelong violinist, former first-chair in the all-state orchestra and recent graduate of Long Reach High School will be heading to Johns Hopkins University in the fall. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Love at first song

Susan Kim’s introduction to the violin was, honestly, a religious experience. There she was, a precocious 3-year-old sitting in Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City during the offertory when a musician near the pulpit raised her bow to play.

Then and there, Kim fell for the fiddle and its heavenly strains.

“I fell in love with the sound,” she said. “I had no idea what a violin was, but when I heard [the woman] play this weird-looking brown instrument, I was very inspired. I thought, ‘How could such a tiny thing make such enriching music?’ ”

Given a violin, Kim dived in. The first song she mastered was a nursery rhyme, “Hot Cross Buns.” Now, at 18, her favorite piece is more highbrow — Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor — although that nascent rush she first felt hasn’t waned.

“I do feel [the instrument’s] resonance when I play it,” said Kim, a June graduate of Long Reach High. “I try to make everything, the blood and the music, flow through my body and not just my fingers. It’s almost a spiritual thing. I make occasional mistakes, but I’m not swayed by them because as long as you believe in the violin and your fingers, and work at it, all will be OK. Practice will never betray you.”

Susan Kim is seen here playing the violin at the age of 10. She was introduced to the instrument when she was 3-years-old.
Susan Kim is seen here playing the violin at the age of 10. She was introduced to the instrument when she was 3-years-old. (photo courtesy of susan kim)

Twice chosen first chair in the Maryland all-state orchestra (junior and senior division), she seemed bound for a college major in music, following her mother (opera singing) and father (clarinet). Then the STEM program intervened. At Long Reach, where she was co-president of three honor societies, she developed a crush on science and will study biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.

It was a tough choice. On her bedroom wall hangs “a nerdy poster” of Albert Einstein beside a sketch of Kim playing violin, drawn by a friend.

“I always thought music would be my path to a career, so I was very conflicted,” she said. “But I’ve learned to always make choices that I won’t regret and, in the end, I went with my gut.”

At Hopkins, she will join its symphony orchestra, perform in small chamber ensembles and jam by herself during study breaks. Pass her dorm room and you might hear tunes like “My Way,” a Frank Sinatra hit, or “At Last,” by Etta James.

“When I’m randomly stressed, I’ll pull it out,” she said of her violin, a 19th-century Guarneri which she named Bella (”beautiful,” in Spanish).

Kim has already managed to mesh her twin interests in a project she completed for a Hopkins-sponsored science research program last summer.

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“String instrument players struggle with finger force, so I wanted to learn how blood flows through our digital arteries and how different the pressure exerted by all 10 fingers is, as we play,” she said.

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Whatever the future, Kim said, her journey with Bella is far from over.

“I may even double major in music performance,” she said. “What I do know is that music will always be a part of me.”

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