Thank you to all of the students that submitted projects to this year’s Beautiful Minds Challenge! We loved the creativity and thought that went in to each submission. Congratulations to our 2015-16 winners!
**All of the language and art are represented here as submitted by the entrant.**
First Place, Senior – “Seeing Red” by Brooke Evans | Cedar Creek School | Ruston, LA
A human being is a multifaceted creature. A human being can be a hero, a villain, and anything between. In creating this project with pages of books and languages from around the globe characterizing humanity as being imperfect, good, evil, and cast in a grayscale where no matter is simply black and white, I realized that like my project, I am made up of the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of humanity. I am so many shades of gray, undefined by a solid, definitive color or label, and yet all I see is red.
I titled my project “Seeing Red” near the end of the process as I was creating the blindfold. I had read The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, and I remembered the scene in which a character said all humans bleed the same color, and yet bias and discrimination still plagues the minds of all human beings. Red is the color binding the whole of humanity together, in wickedness and in virtuousness; it defies race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political leanings, religion, borders, gender, and so many more social boundaries that keep groups of people detached from on another. The heart is bolded in red as well, conveying my theme by representing the heart of humanity and all of the traits we call flawed yet beautiful and “human” as originating from the heart. Red symbolizes love, hate, violence, passion, and mortality every human faces. Color is minimal in the photographs not because I am lazy and incompetent with color theory; no, it is because I wanted to maintain a simplistic presentation of my work, which is not at all simple. Nothing about human beings is simple, but being human is quite the opposite.
I utilized pages from books in my project such as The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anthem by Ayn Rand, and The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. All of these literary works depict and analyze the human condition and human nature when faced with adversity, diversity, and ultimately, themselves. The pages from each book cloak my project in words and ideas that accurately represent humanity at its worst and its finest, which both must be present when portraying a human being. I find the patchy whites and grays contrasted with bold black and the chiaroscuro present in the photographs to be true to human nature – blacks and whites may be possible, but the grays in between are definite. To err is to be human, but so is to seek understanding and goodness.
The final, most arduous aspect of my project is the writing scrawled across the paper mâché exterior of it. I have translated the English term “human” into 90 differentlanguages, and I made the conscious decision to include both noun and adjective forms. I made a happy discovery and learned something new as I wrote out the word in languages such as German, Greek, Catalan, Sinhala, Hindi, Urdu, Afrikaans, Kannada, and several dozen more. I realized that in the adjective definitions of the translated word “human” most languages included positive words like “kind-hearted”, “compassionate”, “humane”, and “decent”, leading me to believe that despite the inherent capabilities to do evil, human beings have a miraculous ability to see the good in humanity and have faith that people are good at their core. I found this consistent trait among languages to be a strong addition to the symbolism in my piece, as well as a small source of hope for the human race.
I had to employ copious amounts of innovation to make this project happen. The mannequin was originally headless, so finding a styrofoam head and meticulously attaching it and aligning it was a frightening yet exciting solution. I made batches upon batches of homemade glue for the paper mâché aspect, and have nearly exhausted my brain for ideas of concept and theme. Yet here is my finished product, my symbol of humankind and being apart of it. Here is a tribute to the color that gives me hope.
Second Place, Senior – “Vines for Veins” by Ron Hertel | Christ Church Episcopal School | Greenville, SC
Part of what it means to be human is to be mindful of what’s happening in the world around you and work to make it better. Humans are not separate from nature or above it like gods; rather, we are key component of the natural balance. In order to improve the world, we must first improve ourselves. I think that bees are an example of how humans can pollinate the flowers of positivity and to plant those seeds where they usually would not dare to grow.
I decided to make something for myself that represents who I am as a person. I put everything I had into this piece for several weeks, sketching it, sculpting it, and glazing it, letting the work be therapeutic for me and giving myself a chance to reflect on my own identity. I chose to create an anatomical heart because of the medical background in my family as well as to represent the morbidity and tragedy of life that we often overlook.
The heart encompasses a honeycomb because I like that both hearts and beehives have chambers. While at first they seem to do almost completely different things, when you think about it, they both literally hold life-giving fluids necessary for survival; while some honeycomb chambers hold precious young bees, a person holds their loved ones in the chambers of their spiritual heart.
Each flower on the heart is special to me and represents an experience I’ve had or a place that I’ve been. The honey itself represents the positive energy and the love that I try to give to the world, and the bees illustrate the effort that I put into both trying to produce the positive energy and maintain the beautiful memories I have instead of forgetting them or letting them become bitter.
Humans can gain a lot of insight from bees about how to care for each other, work together, and how to find a balance between giving and taking from nature. Magic can be found in every species on earth. Perhaps we should focus less on what makes us different from other species and concentrate on how we can apply their positive attributes to ourselves.
Third Place, Senior – “Playing House” by May Jane Schechter | Brooklyn Prospect Charter School | Brooklyn, NY
What does it mean to be human? This is a question only a human would ask. We sleep, we breathe, we sing and dream and blink and grow and when we can’t anymore, we rot, we burn; we’re sent back to the water where life first emerged or back to the earth for the bugs and the worms. Just as flowers and fish and the mites that nest in eyelashes, we are woven into the cycle of living; but what makes us special? What makes us, as human beings, different? I believe it is the search for meaning. We are what we want, we are what we’re not, we are what we make, we are what we believe in. Even the nihilist keeps living for a reason. Humans, we are caught up in our own heads, wondering and ruminating and torturing over what it means to exist. To answer this prompt I focused on five aspects of the search for human meaning, and built homes for each, using dollhouses. I like dollhouses, I think they’re fascinating, and very visceral, like shrines devoted to human existence. Houses teach children how to play life; dolls, how to play self. This time, however, I wanted to see what the dollhouses could teach about playing human.
The first aspect of the human search for meaning emulated by the houses was idealism. Human beings dream and hope and wish so endlessly and fervently that idealism may grant humans the will to live, to transcend, to hew utopias, to fall in love. It’s the endless appeal of fairy tales, and the plight of every star-wisher, that somewhere over the rainbow, where the purple grass grows, there’s a place where all your dreams really do come true. Idealism house ended up being a massive pepto-bismol fabric Barbie castle, stitched at the bottom with fuzzy white clouds and terribly reminiscent of the angelic sky-palaces at the end of every Disney princess movie. For the photograph the house was speckled with paper butterflies and carried to the roof of my apartment building on this lovely sunny day, where a horde of party balloons shouting ‘Get Well Soon’ and ‘Princess’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ attempted to lift the castle into flight for the photograph. The element of flight was pertinent in this endeavor, as the notion of idealism is elevation, looking to the heavens to grant wishes and bring dreams. Unfortunately, even with the efforts of the butterflies and the helium balloons, idealism house did not float up beyond the hemisphere, and the final photograph owes its physics-defying magic to digital retouching. Is this a symbol, that the human search for meaning in happy endings is futile, that the only magic on earth is fabricated? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Miracles happen every moment, and must not be taken for granted – and if the human drive for idealism is hopeless, why has it survived? Hope is an inescapable consequence of humanity, and sometimes, with enough lucky stars and wishing wells, wildest desires truly can be granted.
The second house I photographed was nurture house. The urge to grow, to protect, to cultivate, is innate in human nature. Gardens, nurseries, hospitals, homes, we build shelters around ourselves and the things and creatures we love. Putting together this house made me a little nervous, and a little sad. For nurture house I harvested childish, soft objects, which were very fragile and looked at you in a way that made you want to take care of them. My father and I carried nurture house to the park across the street from our building, where I had spent a large span of my childhood. It had rained the day before, and the air was still grey and foggy and smelled like moss. Everything was silent as the grave, and very solemn, and we passed the waterfall and the boathouse and a little cabin which for some reason, when I was little, I was convinced was full of the bones of large animals. Nurture house was placed at the foot of a tree by the edge of a quiet walking path by the lake. Reindeer moss was spread beneath the gingham house as a blanket, even though the earth was already carpeted with wet fall leaves; I just wanted to be especially careful with the house, so that it wouldn’t get hurt or ruined. For the photograph the house was filled and surrounded by entities of safety and comfort – teacups, teddy bears, seashells, my family of succulents, a poppy sprout, a music box, dog bones slung over the roof, keeping guard; doe bones in the palm of Annabel Lee, my ballerina doll; a room full of raspberries which stained the cloth walls and made the dollhouse look like a massacre scene. My father said the house was beginning to resemble the grave of a small child – although this wasn’t my intent, it sort of made sense. The spot where the photos were taken was very lovely, and even the crowds of black fallen branches reaching clawishly around the edges of the area seemed nestlike. On the way back, a herd of ruffled grey swans drifted through the quiet side of the lake, and the leaves along the path looked like fallen stars; the entire day felt like a dream, and the photos feel like dreams as well. I think this makes sense, I think this is what the house wanted.
The third concept in this search for human meaning was mindless destruction. Just as we are able to create and protect without distinct logistical motivation, so are we able to destroy without purpose. We break bottles, roast ants under magnifying lenses, shoot at cans, tear wings off moths. Human beings have an eerie capability for destruction without meaning; it’s cathartic, hedonistic, satisfying. Destruction house was, by far, the trippiest dollhouse on eBay; carved from electric creamsicle plastic and wainscoted with eerie shades of lime and fuchsia, it was christened ‘acid house’ when it arrived in the mail.When I asked the house if I could burn it, it said okay. In a friend’s garden, we spent an evening stuffing destruction house with dead leaves and twigs and tossing matches through the windows. The house kindled steadily, and by the time the flames screamed through the upper story I was snapping photos blind, the garden filling with this awful black-lung smog. This photograph of destruction house was the last taken before the house was put out; it’s in this picture, I believe, one can see the spirits of the house escaping, under the veil of smoke. Once the fire was smothered with a bucketful of water, destruction house sat gaping and rotted, all melted at the edges, looking like the victim of a nuclear alien apocalypse, like something gutted, but gorgeous, unearthly. Acid house became beautiful once it was burned. Perhaps that’s the double edge of the anarchists’ blade: sometimes, the most beautiful things come from the most ugly.
The dollhouse used to emulate the human proclivity for faith was picked up off the street the very same day I photographed idealism house – it must have been an omen, or a gift from serendipity. This house was built, in part, as a prayer to whichever saint of chance happenings delivered it to me. Faith is an inescapable part of being human. We all pray to something, deities or dreams, we pledge allegiance to consumer culture and cult leaders, we bow our heads in pews and polling booths, in hospitals and laboratories and libraries. Faith house is filled with symbols and totems: devout objects. Faith house was originally a puritan beige, spartan as a monk’s quarters. It seemed to be waiting to transcend itself, so I gave it a boost toward the heavens: on its right half, I painted a night sky, studded with some of the loveliest constellations, among them Cassiopeia, Pegasus and the Pleiades (my favorites), on its left, I painted a daytime soup full of clouds and strange cute little newspaper-cut-out deities. Inside the house is an arsenal of tiny shrines and effigies: the velvet baby-tooth casket I had made for an orange ladybug which had died last summer behind the mirror, a little mirror-box for teeth and bones and chakra stones, a box of matches, a rhinestone temple of Narcissus. Faith house is refuge to Christ, Buddha, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man merged with the pentagram of Solomon, my mother’s string of pearls, and the leather prayer bracelet of a dear friend who is a devout Catholic. I like to think of faith house as sort of a roadhouse for totems; not every representative from every faith is here to visit, but all that are are welcome and friendly with one another. Faith house’s proprietress is the pale-gowned angel of purgatories and limbos, who rests at the center of the house’s two halves. Faith house was photographed on the sill of the stained glass window in the hallway of my apartment building. I had initially wanted to sneak into a church to take the picture, but that didn’t quite pan out, and in the daylight, this seemed as good a place for a temple as any.
The last facet of being human that I focused on in this project was fear. Humans are absolutely riddled with fear; we’re plagued by phobias primal, irrational, and surreal. People are petrified of dolls and hands and thunderstorms, of demons and angels, sleeping and waking and stars and infinity and floods. Fear house is a cough-syrup pink Hello Kitty dollhouse rescued from the neighbor’s trash last year, and its disposition is so naturally sweet that making it over slasher-film style was very fun, sort of like dressing up on Halloween. When I was very young, I believed my dolls moved around in their house at night; I suppose, however, I’m one of the only ones who was comforted by this notion. I filled fear house with the most human of fears, in strange and dreamy incarnations: a hammered-up doll fridge is crawling with plastic spiders, and toy rats play amongst the strawberry doll cakes. Upstairs, while the bathtub fills itself with googly eyes, a little circus-poster ode to Joseph Merrick, the ‘elephant man’, watches over the house, a reminder for the everyman of the quintessential human terror – being unusual. In the baby’s bedroom, the terrors of death and the monster under the bed converge beneath the rat’s bones coat-of-arms. In the end, all of the little toy elements of innocence and fear looked a little silly, like a nursery-school nightmare, but I sort of liked it; aren’t the most childish nonsense fears the most real, the most human? Fear house was photographed on a stack of these gorgeous rusting radiators left alone in the boiler room (a befitting location, I think, being the realm of the patron saint of slasher movies, Freddy Krueger), lit by candles and surrounded by spooky tree-branch tendrils, like a creepy ritual forest, and the flash-bleached interior of fear house gives it a crime-scene edge. The house, like that entire night, seemed caught off-guard; sneaking barefooted up and down the staircases from the highest story of the building to the basement, dollhouse in my arms, boiler-room ash smudged across my knees, I found myself frightened – of the basement ghosts, of tripping and smashing the plastic house to bits, of being caught tangled and nightgown-clad by a speculative neighbor. And then I thought, how silly, how human of me.
First Place, Underclass – “Design the Unconventional, Seek the Uncommon” by Jordan Varat | Christ Church Episcopal School | Greenville, SC
Being human is all about making mistakes and pushing boundaries. As a human race, we would be unable to make progress without trying new things and seriously failing. Keeping this in mind, I decided that I wanted to create something amazing by doing something totally wrong. Our society has set standards to follow in order to complete a task correctly… But why should we be limited to doing the same thing every time we go about a task? Traditionally, pottery was made purely by hand for functional purposes, but over time ceramics has evolved into an amazing art form that can be manipulated by man and machine. In middle school, I learned how to properly throw a pot on the wheel: roll the clay into a ball; smooth it with your hands, beware of air bubbles, center the clay, secure the clay to the bat, have a bucket of water next to you as well as various tools, keep your hands firm, don’t move around, etc. All of these commands enable you to create a nice pot or vase or bowl or whatever you choose to make. But why create a nice piece of art when you can take chances, apply new techniques, travel outside your boundaries, and create something amazing. So I decided to come up with my own, unconventional way of throwing on the wheel. As we have established, being human is breaking the rules, pushing boundaries, developing your own techniques, etc; but being human is also about being aware of what the world offers. There are a million different ways to do everything, but only one or two of them might be acknowledged. Unfortunately, many methods have been lost throughout time because they have been neglected and haven’t been practiced. Having applied the two considerations of designing the unconventional and seeking the uncommon, I decided to try a new form of glazing called raku. I was inspired by a local artist to pursue this engaging way of glazing. Having combined my new way of throwing with an unfamiliar way of glazing, after completing this new and exciting process I had three creations of my own.
Second Place, Underclass – “Elicit Minds: Our Humanity Lies Within Our Words” by Irmina Benson, Vitina Benson, and Cecilia Grassi | Roseland University Prep | Santa Rosa, CA
Our names are Irmina Benson, Vitina Benson and Cecilia Grassi. We currently attend Roseland University Prep in Northern California. When we first were introduced to the project we were lost. We had not the slightest clue about how a couple girls living in our town could come up with the answer to a question not even the most renowned scientist could produce. We pondered for weeks on what made humans who they are. We attempted to identify what in our lives made us feel the most human. We asked ourselves, “What have we seen, done or felt in our lives that showed us who were are?” We knew it was going to be hard to attempt to decipher one of the most complex questions in our existence. We considered everything from self evolution, to the idea that we can love without being loved in return. Even with all of these thoughts swimming around in our heads, nothing seemed to be “the answer.” What we knew for sure is that humans throughout time have been considered the most pioneering of all species, from forming the first fires and tools to building the tallest structures on earth. Humans have made their mark on not only this world but on the universe. They have demonstrated the unique ability to create innovative, abstract ideas and manifest them into tools that alter life on the planet. After a while, we finally came to our conclusion. We knew there were many things to choose from, but we decided that the thing that makes us human, the most natural thing that we do, is to intentionally use words to evoke emotional and physical responses from those around us.
Physically, the chemistry in the human brain changes when we speak or are spoken to. We can change the entire chemistry of someone’s brain just by saying hello, or by giving them a compliment. Words can make us cry and laugh and smile, setting off neurotransmitters in the brain that in return releases chemicals such as Endorphins and Dopamine that ultimately affects all cells and body structures.
In our documentary, we set out to show that when a person who is under emotional stress enters a room and is treated warmly and kindly, a noticeable physical change will result. To demonstrate our hypothesis, we gathered several subjects and told them they were going to be interviewed for a film. We didn’t tell them what the film was about or what we would be asking them. We wanted to catch their emotional and physical responses to our words in the rawest state possible. Once we had them sit down, we asked them how they felt, and gave them a few compliments, and by doing so we captured our truth on live film. In the film, the subjects either smiled or showed discomfort when given compliments, but once the interviews were done, most of them felt entirely different from when they walked in.
As a result of this project, we have come to conclude that while many species communicate with one another, what makes us humans special is our ability to express how we feel to one another with words alone, and in return we are able to elicit a response that actually alters another person’s brain chemistry. We humans have the unique potential to alter another person’s entire experience of the world with just a few words, and that is what sets us apart so notably from other living things.
Third Place, Underclass – “Rhythms of the Mind” by Evelina Soloveicik | Christ’s Church Episcopal School | Greer, SC
This project, for me, is a way to express personality of each individual. My aim is to convey to others how something as shapeless as clay can be molded into a symbol of humanity. While engaging in this challenge, I learned that being human means to understanding our emotions allows us to not only to express them but to apprehend the fast-moving world around us.
I challenged myself to make a musical soundtrack for the first time with my instrument. Recordings of me playing the clay instrument over piano, guitar and modern electronic beats created the peaceful rhythm that overcame the chaotic city life around me. For someone like me who has never played an instrument, creating calm cords on a computer felt artificial, therefore I inserted some upbeat and destruction rhythms to portray the different emotions. My final audio file shows how the pure blown notes eliminate the disorganized anarchy.