Brooklyn students Brianna Blue and Aleksandra Kwiecień recently received two of the highest honors in the 2021 Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards, a nationwide program that recognizes artistic achievement in teens. Both Blue and Kwiecień, who won in the Gold Medal Portfolio and the Silver Medal with Distinction Portfolio categories, respectively, are seniors at Midwood’s Edward R. Murrow High School, where they currently take classes through the school’s rigorous four-year fine arts program. They’re also both, it so happens, in the exact same senior portfolio class, taught by Visual Arts teacher Sarah Grace Holcomb.
“It’s a little surreal,” Holcomb told Bklyner.
There were only 46 recipients out of a pool of 230,000 applicants nationwide, including 16 recipients of the Gold Medal Portfolio award and 30 of the Silver Medal with Distinction award. To have two of those recipients come from the same city, let alone the same classroom, is “unprecedented,” a representative for Scholastic told Bklyner.
In recognition of her role as educator to Blue and Kwiecień, Scholastic said, Holcomb was awarded prize money from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the nonprofit behind the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She is now also eligible for an artists’ residency, also through the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Holcomb, a teacher at Murrow for over eight years — as well as a working artist — started at Murrow as a student teacher while completing her Master’s of Science in Art and Design Education at Pratt Institute. When she arrived, Spy Kontarinis, the Assistant Principal of Fine Arts and Business at Murrow, told Bklyner, she so thoroughly impressed the students and staff that she was hired to teach there full-time.
Holcomb is a “renaissance person” in the arts, said Kontarinis. “She can do everything. And she can do everything really well.”
Having a working artist on staff is a major asset to the arts program, Carlos Rosado, Visual Arts teacher at Murrow and Holcomb’s coworker, told Bklyner.
“She’s able to not only teach the students, but connect with what they’re going through at the moment,” said Rosado. “As working artists, we’re still going through those things. We have our high moments, we have our low moments. She’s very candid with [the students] about that.”
Beyond being a talented artist, what stood out about Holcomb to those around her was her natural affinity for teaching.
“There was something about Sarah that was definitely very special,” said Kontarinis. “If there’s ever an indicator that you should hire a teacher, it’s how the students feel about that teacher. She was just with it: she was tough, she expected a lot, but the kids knew; she only expected from them what they could give. And she’s never been wrong.”
Holcomb has a “magical” connection with her students, Kontarinis said. “It’s not something anybody can teach you; it’s not something you can learn in a program; it’s not something you pick up in grad school. It’s something you are born with – and she’s born with it.”
Holcomb’s success has continued throughout the pandemic – her classes probably have the best attendance rate in the school, Kontarinis told Bklyner.
Blue and Kwiecień are both in the same section of Holcomb’s portfolio class, a senior level class that serves as the culmination of students’ four years in the art program. By that point, students are aware of their strengths, and have a sense of what subjects and media they want to focus on, Holcomb explained. They spend senior year honing their portfolio, a collection of standout works they’ve produced over the last three years, and the class is divided into two sections: one for students who plan to apply to art school, and one for students who don’t plan to pursue art as a career. Blue and Kwiecień are in the former.
In all of her classes, Holcomb explained, she pushes her students to become the “expert” in their own work.
“No one can tell you more about your art than you do,” she said. “And that’s where I think, really, their stuff starts to flourish and become really interesting.”
“Learning from Ms. Holcomb has been amazing,” Blue told Bklyner. “She is a very supportive teacher and person. Holcomb has taught my classmates and me how to break boundaries in art, especially the ones we have set for ourselves.”
“This past year, as we learned new techniques and of artists that belong to the contemporary world, the representation Holcomb showed varied, including in art styles and forms. When it comes to creating art, in this past year it was for sure an adjustment in how we receive our critiques, but it’s one of many classes where it does not feel like a formal class, but a space to share our growth as artists and individuals.”
Both Blue and Kwiecień have distinct artistic styles and personalities, explained Holcomb. Kwiecień, a Polish student whose art incorporates designs from traditional Polish clothing, submitted portraits made out of embroidery – a skill she learned from Holcomb just last year – for the award. Blue, who lives with her large extended family, touches on aspects of her home life, as well as her experience as a member of the Black community, in her work. Both, however, are dedicated to doing the work – something that Holcomb emphasizes in her classes.
“I cannot tell you the number of times I have had students come into my class at the beginning of the year, one had more ‘talent’ or ‘skills’ than another,” Holcomb said. “But the other student, who had the drive and passion, far surpassed them.”
Blue received a full scholarship to Pratt Institute, where she will begin in the fall. Kwiecień received a partial scholarship to Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and both students’ work is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until this Friday.
5/21/21 – This article has been updated to show that Holcomb is now eligible for an artists’ residency due to her role as educator to Blue and Kwiecień, not that she has been awarded one, as originally published.