The symbolism in Niko Shawn Renee Looper’s painting couldn’t be more powerful.
Or more timely.
Hands reach upward, each trying to grasp something that seems just out of reach.
Or is it? Looper hopes not, because he gave it a title that’s full of optimism and hope.
“We Need to Do Better,” he called the painting, which took one of the top awards at last week’s 47th Annual Superintendent’s High School Art Show.
The show, sponsored by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, celebrated the work of high school artists from around the state. For the first time in its nearly half-century history, the show featured art from disciplines beyond visual art, including a short film and a Shakespearean monologue.
However, visual art remains the centerpiece, and Looper’s claimed the top prize from the state teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association.
That surprised Looper, who wasn’t sure the piece would make it out of local competition.
Work began last fall. The canvas was relatively small: 22 inches by 7, but it reflected Looper’s dreams.
“The concept of the piece is that we need to do better,” Looper wrote with his submission. “We need to do better for ourselves, for one another, for students, for the planet, for minorities, for humanity.
“There are so many problems in the world that are simply pushed aside. There are so many people dying and suffering for just trying to be who they are. There are so many people just trying to get by who are being denied basic human rights,” said Looper, who identifies as queer.
Interviewed two days after Sunday’s unrest in downtown Spokane, Looper said “I care a lot about people’s rights and social issues. Being a young queer kid, it’s really important to me – and growing up, climate change and the political stuff affects me personally and its affects other people.”
Other issues addressed in the artwork include climate change, protests, ocean pollution, mental health, immigration, school shootings, racism and humanity.
“All of the hands are reaching toward something. That ‘something’ in my mind is a better world, or peace, but it is ultimately up to the viewer,” said Looper, who was paid $200 for his piece by the WEA.
Art was already Looper’s favorite subject, and the coronavirus shutdown of schools has done nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.
“Yes, passionately,” said Looper, who hopes to go on to art school. “I always wanted to pursue something in art but didn’t realize until my freshman year that I could do that.”
His teacher, Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, hopes Looper will work next year to assemble an Advanced Placement portfolio.
At the same time, she hopes Looper will continue to weave passion into his work – “to dive into one area and going into that and creating a portfolio around that idea.”
“You see that special spark, and that really goes for any of my students,” Wilkins-Pepiton said.
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