Imagine that as an art student you are given an assignment to create a work illustrating a piece of text. Perhaps you’d think of poetry, or music lyrics, or a famous quote. But Rachel Robinson, a senior at Kent Denver School, thinks outside the box. She selected a warning label. She explains, “I asked my mother to buy me cigarettes so I could do an art project, inspired by warning labels. My grandfather smoked, and I saw a YouTube video of a child smoking. I made a sculpture of a pacifier made with cigarettes, underneath is a photo of an infant that looks like it’s sucking on the pacifier/smoking.”
That project is only one of the many she has created. Each thought-provoking work of art stands as evidence of a young lady’s determination and focus. She has struggled with dyslexia and ADHD, along with a deep feeling of incompetence. A strong mentor and an imaginative teen program at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) have been instrumental in bringing out the artist inside this bright high school student.
Her mother, Lisa, talks about her daughter’s early years: “Rachel was always into art. When she was six she was drawing fashions. She made little comments like ‘Clothes make everything better.’ She was so little and creative, but we didn’t think much about it. She doodles in all her notebooks. She’s writing, but drawing.” Rachel comments on those years: “I’ve always been very creative. Ever since I was little I was always sketching maternity clothing. I always felt incompetent. I couldn’t succeed at anything. There was lots of pressure to be perfect in ways you were expected to. I think there’s a lot of desire for conformity.” Lisa adds, “Art was the thing she felt very good about. It was her outlet.” In art there is no right or wrong answer. It was something she could do, and not fail.
At Kent, Rachel was fortunate to study with the art/photography teacher, Jon Fortmiller. She relates, “I have to say I’m lucky enough to have an amazing teacher who has supported me. He’s let me experiment and play with my ideas. He’s become a huge mentor. I think he has had a huge impact of shaping who I am as a person, as well as an artist. He’s taught me that it’s OK to take risks, and OK to risk failure. He’s never underestimated me. Some ideas I come up with seem impossible, he encourages me to go with it. When I take on these projects, they take over my life. I wouldn’t have been able to create the work without his support and encouragement.” Her mother agrees, “She’ll get into an art project at the expense of everything else. Her math grade went from an A to a zero!”
Rachel is in her second year as an intern at the MCA in a program that seems to have been created just for her. They call it Failure Lab, described on their website as an internship program for a select group of high school students, “Because we believe that risking failure is an integral element of creativity, we designed this program to provide teens with a unique opportunity to try out wild ideas.” Rachel believes it is one of the best things she’s done. “It’s fitting with what I believe in. We’re trying to expose more teens to the museum. The point is to not be afraid to fail. It’s not only taking risks and failing, but it’s encouraged. There’s a fine line between failure and success.”
One of those “wild ideas” has resulted in a great honor for her…the Coke Can Dress. “I worked on it for months. It was going to be an advertisement for Coke. I was going to have a girl wear it, and do her make-up and hair in Victorian style to advertise Coke Classic. But everyone loved it, so I never got that far! It’s now in the permanent collection at the MCA. I get butterflies every time I think of it. There’s no feeling like having your art be admired and desired.” Next year Rachel will attend the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. The school focuses on getting students prepared for creative careers; she looks towards advertising or fashion design. After visiting the campus, Rachel knew it was the only place she wanted to attend college. She applied for and received both academic and merit scholarships.
Rachel shows remarkable maturity saying, “Growing up [I felt] I was inferior…that I wasn’t going anywhere, and then discover I can.” She adds, “I have played competitive volleyball through school. I’m the founder and president of the fashion club at school. I’m a teen advocate for Clothes to Kids…. a really cool organization. Kids of families who have fallen into poverty can “shop” here to pick out outfits for them. It’s cool to see the kids light up.” Rachel states, “I have a fantastic family that’s always supported whatever I wanted to do. I’ve always taken the path less traveled. The encouragement has been incredible.” Lisa would say to parents, “You have to listen to your kids and find out what their passion is.”
Bio: Joy Lawrance is a freelance writer living in Golden. She writes regularly for the New West Publishing family of magazines.