When Justin McQuiston was invited up to the podium to receive his certificate of excellence at the opening reception for “All Kids Can CREATE” in the lobby of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library on Wednesday morning, he yelled “Yeah!” The crowd of 100 or so proud parents and children laughed and applauded as the 14-year-old Vermont native posed for the cameras.
Justin, a rising high school freshman with Down syndrome, was one of 10 students who received funding from VSA, an international arts organization that focuses on children with disabilities, and CVS Caremark to come to Washington and witness the unveiling of their artworks.
More than 3,000 students ages 5 to 15 submitted pieces for the competition, now in its fifth year. Students were invited to create works that respond to the question, “What Inspires Me?” loosely based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Two children — one with a disability — were chosen from each state, and their works, 102 pieces that range from crayon doodles to watercolors, are on display in the lobby of the library, 901 G St. NW, until Aug. 26.
Family is a major theme in the artwork. Jared Payne, 9, of Baton Rouge, La., was inspired by his mom’s successful fight against cancer to create a pastel drawing of two swamp creatures battling it out on the bayou. He stood with his three brothers, all dressed in suits, and told how he learned his piece had been chosen.
“The night [of the contest deadline], she [Jared’s mother] busted down the door and said that I had won,” Jared said.
“He’s a true inspiration,” said his mother, who found out that the piece was based on her experience only when she read the personal statement that accompanies each artwork.
Mason Hardin, a 15-year-old with Down syndrome, didn’t tell her parents that she had painted a family portrait for the competition, in case she didn’t win. Mason’s mother found out about the award from Mason’s art teacher, and she, her husband and Mason made the trek from Georgia to the District together.
Summer Corry 13, and Shani Summers, 14, also used familial inspiration for their pieces: each other. Shani, who is deaf, was the muse behind Summer's painting of hands using American Sign Language. “It’s about signing and how my cousin inspires me,” Summer said. Shani made a self-portrait. “It represents everything that’s happened in my life,” she said through an interpreter.
Other students, such as Luis Paredes, 11, of New York were inspired by the civil rights movement. When Luis’s art teacher, Tan’ya Wells-Vasquez, taught his fifth-grade special education class about the Greensboro Four, Luis, who has a mild form of autism, made a sketch that got Wells-Vasquez’s attention. “His sensitivity in capturing the feelings was just really remarkable,” said Vasquez-Wells, who came with Luis and his father to the reception.
Betty Siegel, VSA’s director, says that the turnout this year was exceptional. Asked why the arts have such an appeal among children, she said, “After learning the word, ‘Mommy’ and asking for milk, the next thing a child reaches for is a crayon.”