Stacked along one wall of Mark Wilkins' Reston basement are unframed canvases, each bearing his unique style of brightly colored brush strokes.
Tucked in the corner, built just for fun, is a yard-long model of a sailing ship, made of papier ma che' and tongue depressors and rigged with heavy string.
Wilkins, who has just finished his senior year at South Lakes High School in Reston, jokes and laughs easily--until the talk turns to art. Then his eyes focus on the floor, hands clasped, voice serious.
"I think a career with art would be totally unavoidable," he says.
His seriousness is echoed by 17-year-old Stefan Christian, a recent graduate of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, who speaks of a writing career.
His cubbyhole bedroom in his parents' modest ranch-style home in Fairfax County is filled from floor to ceiling with books: Greek classics in translation, biographies, fantasy fiction and 18th-century romantic novels.
Homemade marionettes of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, two of his favorite historical figures, hang from his ceiling.
"This is what she could actually have worn," says Christian as his hand strokes the gold filigree of Eleanor's dress. He speaks with almost flip assurance about history and literature, but when the talk turns to his writing he is less certain.
"I don't know what inspires me," he says slowly, of his poems and short stories. "It is just something I do. I hope to do it in the future."
Wilkins and Christian, two young men with diverse interests but equal dedication, were honored as Presidential Scholars in ceremonies last week at Georgetown University where they met with U.S. Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, toured the White House and attended a reception at the Organization of American States.
Wilkins and Christian are among 141 Presidential Scholars, representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Students chosen for academic excellence were selected from a pool of 2 million high school seniors who took college board exams. The 21 students in the arts section were chosen after the special presidential commission to select the scholars asked teachers across the country to nominate outstanding students in the arts.
Wilkins and Christian each received $5,000 in prize money: $1,000 from the Presidential Scholars program and $4,000 from two special arts endowments. Both plan to use the money for college. Wilkins, the son of Ray and Patricia Wilkins, said he is planning to attend Washington University in St. Louis this fall. Christian, the son of Dr. Jack and Marjorie Christian, said he will attend Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
Christian submitted several poems and a short story for the competition. One poem was a fictitious reminiscence of an elderly woman who died in 1981. His short story concerned a 25-year-old mentally unbalanced woman. Christian said when he met the judges they told him they were amazed someone of his age could write so accurately about people so different from him in age and experience.
Wilkins, after submitting slides of his oil paintings, was called to Florida last January to compete as a finalist in the fine arts category. The 40 finalists were asked to paint a still life; read an Irish story, then draw their impressions of it; and create a sculpture from scrap material, which Wilkins admitted was a piece of cake since he had practice--his boat at home, as well as a fleet of cardboard airplanes.
"But most kids thought they blew it on the interviews," said Wilkins. "I felt very confident discussing my work, explaining what I was trying to accomplish."
One benefit of the program, Christian said, is the incentive it gives students.
"I knew I wanted to be a writer in the 10th grade," he said. "This is a great form of encouragement. At the same time, one tends to realize the magnitude of the honor. It may be an exaggeration, but they were telling us we were the artists, the scientists, the writers of tomorrow. That gives a certain sense of accomplishment, but also a desire to strive to be even better."
Although both scholars are grateful for the money and the honors, they said it was somehow disillusioning to receive awards for artistic and academic achievements from an administration that has cut back funding for the arts and student financial aid.
"I can see irony," said Christian. "It is going to be very, very difficult for me to afford college. There may be a point when I cannot afford to go to Swarthmore, the school of my choice."
Wilkins added: "People kept saying, 'Oh, you'll meet the president,' " he said. "And I kept saying, 'Yeah, I'll be meeting my archenemy too.' "