Okemos High School sweeps top awards at the Lansing Art Gallery

OKEMOS — In Rachel Hollenback’s nearly two decades as an Okemos High School art teacher, she’d never seen one high school win the entire roster of top awards at the Lansing Art Gallery’s “Art Scholarship Alert,” the gallery’s student exhibit.

This year, Okemos High School did. Judges picked four Okemos students – all girls- for having the most artistic portfolios for their grade levels and chose another as the scholarship winner.

Winners are freshman Mercedes Choi, sophomore Joanna Deng, junior Emma Li and senior Amy Lee. Leah Elliott won the $1,000 Sara Jane Venable scholarship, which is a separate honor for 12th graders and above who plan to pursue the visual arts in college.

Exactly 68 students from six counties – Ingham, Livingston, Jackson, Clinton, Shiawassee and Barry – submitted pieces to be featured in the exhibit. Out of those students, 40 had their art put on display.

Leah, Amy and Emma are all in Hollenback’s Advanced Placement art class. Joanna and Mercedes plan to take the class when they’re upperclassmen. They’re now in Amanda Welch’s art class.


The AP art students have been working on their portfolio since the beginning of the year.

Leah’s inspiration came from memories of her childhood and friends and family. She’s graduating high school this year and said that art helps her process experiences she’s had and the emotions she’s feeling.

“My theme was the passing of time.” Leah said. “I like to take inspiration from my family and friends. I look back at old pictures and memories of us … and just like the feelings (from those memories).”

The 12th grade portfolio winner said inspiration came from her connection and experiences with nature.

“My favorite piece is the first one I did this year.” Amy said. “It has three girls, they’re all the same girl but like it represents me as a child and playing outside and being very carefree.”

The 11th grade portfolio winner took inspiration from her family’s culture and watching them throughout her childhood.

“My favorite piece was one of my parents playing a Chinese card game with their friends.” Emma said.

Joanna Deng, the 10th grade portfolio winner, said she was inspired by nature, but she didn’t have a distinct theme for her portfolio.

Mercedes said she used her first painting of jellyfish as the inspiration for the portfolio she entered. Her two pet fish also inspired her.

“I like to make art to make me happy,” she said. “I don’t really like to make art for other people.”

‘A place to go to be successful’

Hollenback credits Okemos Public Schools with having the opportunities for students to excel in areas outside of academics.

“Okemos High School is obviously a really top tier school academically, but there are also students who maybe aren’t the best academically or who have other talents that might be outside of the general classroom.” Hollenback said. “I think that the art and even the music here are places that kids can go and feel, you know, really happy and be successful.”

Art is a big deal for the students in her class. Leah said she used it to help her process her feelings on growing older and eventually leaving home. Emma said it helps her feel closer to her family, and she liked being able to portray important moments in her family’s lives for them.

Hollenback tries to make sure students who want to enter art in the contest are well prepared, and her students begin preparing their portfolios months in advance.

“I make a really big deal about (the Lansing Art Gallery’s exhibit).” Hollenback said. “I tell the kids this is an amazing opportunity. This is like an art show … It’s a very prestigious show, let’s put in our best work … let’s give them a really good show.”

The student exhibits will be available to view until the end of March at the Lansing Art Gallery, located in the Knapp’s Centre at 300 South Washington Square in Lansing.

Contact Sarah Atwood at satwood@lsj.com. Follow her on X @sarahmatwood.

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