Jennifer Rodriguez’s colorful, captivating art room filled with plush chairs depicting works by Van Gogh, muraled walls and tables scattered with art supplies occupies two stories inside Mt. Lebanon School District’s expansive high school.

If the room is any indication, this year’s annual art show is going to be a feast for the senses.

“This is sort of like our comeback,” said Rodriguez, who has taught advanced placement art at the high school for nearly six years. “Last year, we had a modified art show with limited tickets and time slots. It was extremely small compared to what we’re used to. The year before, we had a virtual art show. This kind of art show at the scale we’re hoping to achieve, it gives people hope. It’s sort of like a glimpse into returning back to a more normal existence.”

The show – more art gala than high school art show – begins at 7 p.m. Friday, April 29, at the high school’s C20 entrance. Attendees enter the lobby, which Rodriguez and her students have transformed into a beautiful terrarium where ceramics and other artworks sprout up amongst a landscape of succulents and plants.

Soothing water sounds hum beneath the music of a live pianist, which entices visitors upstairs, to the center court, where more than 700 pieces of art fit for the Carnegie Museum stand grandly on the glossy wooden floor or hang proudly against black felt backdrops.

“We’re back in a big way,” Rodriguez said with smile.

And her students are eager to showcase their pieces. The juniors and seniors in Rodriguez’s AP Art class have been dreaming of this show since they were young.

“All of us have been looking forward to this since we were in middle school,” said senior Svetlana Epperson, motioning to four other seniors sitting near her on a recent weekday.

Twenty-five AP Art students spent this school year exploring themes of their choosing through various media, including acrylic on chipboard, ink on paper and gouache (a thick, water-medium paint) on paper. Lizze Roman, a senior whose work explores folklore and fairytales, said her largest piece took 21 hours to complete, and most students spent an average of 10 hours on each artwork.

They completed one artwork every week of this school year. Each AP artist will display 20 pieces in this year’s show.

“The last normal art show, in 2019, we were freshmen when that happened,” said Ellie Farbman, a senior who aims to surprise audiences with her peaceful, surrealist still-life paintings. “It feels like kind of a lifetime ago. We all probably had two or three things in it. This year, it’s more focused around us. We got to see the AP kids when we were freshmen having their show. It’s just really exciting.”

Exciting, too, is the talent and range of these students. The works of senior Annie Du and junior Nick Herring explore the intersection of music and fine art. Epperson brings graphic design to life on canvas through bold, patterned acrylic paints. Josie Simpson, a junior, has spent the year diving into mythology, religion and natural decay, and Madelyn Yaremcho’s work focuses on femininity.

“I’ve struggled a lot with being less feminine than other people I’ve been around just because I’m taller. Drawing other women that aren’t super-conventionally attractive has really helped me,” said Yaremcho, who earlier this year switched from gouache painting to pop art-style posca pen pieces.

The change in medium has given Yaremcho freedom to create bolder, brighter images – a shift that reflects a change in mindset.

“I think I just kind of got more happy with everything in life and I was like, ‘More color!’” she said.

Rodriguez said last year, her students’ art was darker, a reflection of living through a pandemic and struggling to return to normalcy. This year, the work is vibrant, and even the black-and-white ink on paper pieces by junior Seiya Iyobe are emotive.

“(I’m exploring) if manga can be elevated into a fine art level,” said Iyobe, who joked he’s been drawing since his hand could wrap around a pencil. “I really like (manga) because I lived in Japan until fifth grade. I’m doing kind of a graphic novel thing. I’m writing it in Japanese characters, like the speech bubbles. I’m making an enlarged version of a manga.”

While Iyobe brings Japanese culture to Mt. Lebanon, senior Ella Slagle will display a slice of local life through her paintings, which blend her passion for nature and art.

“My question was about the human relationship with plants and plant life vs. human structures,” she said, noting one of her favorite works is a painting based off her own photograph of the Mt. Lebanon Farmers Market. “I love being in nature. I love hiking. I wanted to connect my love for plants with how humans don’t even realize how much plants impact us and how much we impact them.”

In addition to the works by AP students, the annual art show showcases pieces by students at all levels. Graphite portraits, studies of stained glass and painted cellos are among the works show attendees will enjoy.

“We showcase all abilities,” said Rodriguez. “The pandemic was designed to drain creativity, but now we’re back and they’ve really done it. They’re talented. I’m very proud of them.”

The students are looking forward to sharing their art with family and friends, and hope the community comes out for an evening of music, art work and conversation.

“Art is the great unifier. It brings people together. It’s the pulse of a community,” said Rodriguez. “Essentially, the night is a celebration of community. It’s a celebration of creativity, and it’s a celebration of achievement for the artists who work so hard.

“When you share your art, you’re very vulnerable, exposed,” Rodriguez said. “You’re sharing your talents, you’re sharing your thoughts, your feelings through your art. For them to come together and show this to the community ... it’s pretty awesome.”

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