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Talented seniors, artwork coming out of Gainesville High's National Art Honor Society
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Gainesville High National Arts Honor Society president Matthew Penado works with mixed media, from paintings to photography and film, that carry strong social and political messages. - photo by Scott Rogers

Gainesville may not be regarded by history as an arts town — yet. 

But the foundation for such a tradition is being laid across the community in new exhibits, public murals and a burgeoning crop of young students.

In particular, soon-to-be graduates of Gainesville High, among them members of the National Art Honor Society, have showcased what local talent looks like.

“I would say this has been our most productive year so far,” said Sarah Claussen, the fine arts chair and visual arts instructor at Gainesville High.

Whether through painting, drawing, ceramics, photography, or courses in the history and principles of design, this year’s senior class has shown a high aptitude for the arts.

The student organization this year created a large-scale mural to benefit the Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville.

The student group also participated with artists from Atlanta, other high schools and university students to carve and print a large-scale work titled, “Rise Up,” Claussen said.

“Lead designer and NAHS president, Matthew Penado, along with our GHS National Art Honor crew, worked diligently over a month to hand carve the design,” she added.

Penado has been involved with the group since freshman year.

Along the way, Penado said, the biggest lesson learned is that good leaders know the value of good team members, which requires listening and observing “like a sponge.”

“They really helped me and guide me to do things that otherwise, by myself, I couldn’t do,” Penado said. “I’ve been able to see different kinds of leadership.”

Penado’s “bread and butter” is working with mixed media, from paintings to photography and film, that carry strong social and political messages.

Penado is looking for a way to continue studying art at the college level, though financial constraints may push back that timeline.

“But despite that I’m still going to work hard and get a full-time job,” Penado said. “Sometimes you have to roll with the punches and keep going.”

Catie Cook, who has been involved with the honor society since her sophomore year, took first place in senior art awards for a watercolor on paper painting called “Plunge.”

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Gainesville High's Catie Cook has been involved with the National Art Honor Society since her sophomore year and has excelled to high levels of recognition for her paintings. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Stories of seniors from each Gainesville and Hall school are collected in this class of 2019 section.

Her work also earned her a $2,000 Kiwanis scholarship and a $4,000 scholarship from the Quinlan Visual Arts Center in Gainesville. 

But Cook said her journey has been an unexpected one.

“I was the type of kid who always used to paint just for fun,” she said.

But her father and grandmother were artistically inclined, and her mother pushed her to pursue her talents.

It’s been “totally worth it,” Cook said.

She plans to enroll at the University of Georgia in the fall and major in studio art.

Katherine Salazar, meanwhile, served as the treasurer of the honor society this school year. The opportunity breathed new life into her work.

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Gainesville High's Katherine Salazar's charcoal drawings have been recognized at state-level competitions. - photo by Scott Rogers

Salazar said she always “doodled” but she lived far away from school and was unable to engage most extracurricular activities until this year.

“I didn’t really think much of it,” she said. “I still thought of art as a hobby for myself, and not as a career.”

But not anymore. Salazar plans to attend Kennesaw State University after graduation, with dreams of becoming a studio artist or maybe a book cover illustrator.

If the latter is the case, she may find herself doing charcoal drawings for someone like Stephen King.

“I really like doing horror art,” she said.

Salazar’s work has been recognized at state-level competitions.

Grace O’Keefe, an Advanced Placement student, described her art as a “labor of love.”

She said broadening her art to include pottery and ceramics has allowed her to take risks.

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Gainesville High's Grace O'Keefe was chosen as a finalist to exhibit her art in the Atlanta High School Art Exhibition, which took place at the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park in April. - photo by Scott Rogers

“I’ve really loved the process,” she said. “I’m very academic, so to come here and think differently is very relaxing.”

O’Keefe said art serves as a good balance to her athletic pursuits, such as tennis, and her other studies. She intends to major in English in college.

“I know (art) means a lot of different things to people,” she said.

For O’Keefe, this year has meant being chosen as a finalist to exhibit her art in the Atlanta High School Art Exhibition, which took place at the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park in April.

Photography is also a pursuit for some students, including Khanh Au, whose came to the United States from Vietnam in 2015.

This medium has helped Au explore and navigate her new environment.

She said telling her story was difficult at first because she could not speak much English.

“When I came here, I could not make friends,” Au said.

But like mathematics, Au described art as a “universal language” that translates across cultures, and her photography projects have brought her closer to her art peers.

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Gainesville High's Khanh Au came to the United States from Vietnam in 2015 and thinks of art as a “universal language” that translates across cultures, and her photography projects have brought her closer to her art peers. - photo by Scott Rogers

Au also gained valuable experience interning with the Quinlan Visual Arts Center through a work-based learning program. She helped manage a kids’ camp, for example, and assisted with exhibit showings and events.

Au plans to attend the University of North Georgia in the fall and later study interior design and marketing.

In the meantime, she’ll be finding inspiration in retail.

“I like to go to Home Goods and Hobby Lobby,” she said with a laugh. 

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