Homestead teen wins art award for second year

Leon Willis is no stranger to the Beaux Arts Festival of Art on the University of Miami. For the second year in a row, the high school sophomore has taken home the Best of Show award for the Students Artist Showcase.

“I wanted to see if I could win twice,” said Willis, a 17-year-old student at the Arthur and Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts, a magnet school grades 6-12 in Goulds.

The judges for the two-day art festival evaluated 400 submissions by Miami-Dade middle and high school students without any knowledge of the contestants’ names. For the 63rd annual fair last weekend, 150 of those pieces were selected to be showcased at the Lowe Art Museum on the UM campus.

At a reception held at the museum on Jan. 14, fair organizers revealed that Willis, who lives in Homestead, had been named the Best of Show winner once again for a portrait titled Natalie.

“Since the judging was done blindly, it really speaks to Leon’s talent for him to have been selected again,” said Amy Steinhour, the co-chair of the festival. “We get so many submissions and the diversity is incredible.”

The portrait, which Willis painted in a classic Impressionist style, is of his girlfriend of four years, who is also enrolled at the Arthur and Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts.

“I wanted to capture this facial expression of hers that is this questioning, angry look,” Willis said. “It can sometimes mean ‘uh oh, Leon is in trouble.’ 

Willis took a series of photos of his girlfriend making the expression before he began the oil painting. Inspired by an art history course at school where he learned about the artist Georges Seurat, Willis included circles of color in the painting.

“The composition centered around the circles at the top,” Willis said. “It made the painting more dynamic and gave the subject matter something to look at it.”

He worked on the portrait for four days in school, where he takes four periods of art electives a day. Art teacher Gerald Obregon has Willis as a student in two of his painting courses and says he has grown close to him.

“He is an old soul and is very focused on becoming an artist,” Obregon said. “We have very interesting conversations about artists from different centuries because he asks very specific questions about art. I don't think I have had a student with that a level of intensity in quite some time.”

Obregon, who had Willis as a student last year as well, says that his style has progressed since he participated in the festival the previous year. His winning entry the year before had been a self-portrait created with a combination of pen and colored pencil.

“He has more of an eclectic style now,” Obregon said. “He is doing a mishmash of different classical styles, everything from Impressionism to Surrealism.”

Willis says the Beaux Arts Festival of Art competition helps motivate him each year.

“For a student doing art, you kind of need a push, to put your energy into your art and to do other things with it, “ Willis said. “The chance of losing motivates you to do the best you can.”

Willis is not the only student from the Arthur and Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts recognized in the Students Artist Showcase, which is in its 13th year. In the middle school division, eighth-graders Talhoaa Akthar, Aidon Milligan and Eileen Toledo were finalists in the digital art category. Juniors Jamesley St. Juste and Catherine Villalonga were both recognized for graphic art. In the high school painting division, junior Brandon Juarez took second place and junior Daniella Willumsen was a finalist.

“We try to get the students involved in many of the shows as possible,” Obregon said. “It is good exposure for them and gives them a lot of pride.”

The winning students’ work were displayed from Jan. 11 to the 19, through the Festival of Art weekend, which organizers say was frequented by 15,000 patrons over its two days.

“It is our mission to bring art further into the community, especially with the kids,” Steinhour said. “The Student Artist Showcase really reaches deep into the community and touches a lot of young talent.”

Read more Visual Arts stories from the Miami Herald

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