Classrooms: NHS art students making Michelangelo proud

  • Northampton High School senior Lilli Fowler, a student in an Honors Art class taught by Lisa Leary, works on a mural of her own design on the third floor of the school on Tuesday, April 10. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School senior Lilli Fowler, a student in an honors art class taught by Lisa Leary, works on a mural of her own design on the third floor of the school. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School senior Honors Art student Inde Francis will be attending Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Photo taken on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School senior honors art student Inde Francis will be attending Massachusetts College of Art and Design. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School Honors Art seniors Ally McGrath, left, and Odelia Forman create a mural in the style of a French bistro to blend in with the cafe tables and chairs in place just outside the school cafeteria on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School seniors Naomi Claire Brenneck, left, and Kailey Weaver talk about the arts programs at the school during a break from creating a mural in the community room. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School honors art seniors Ally McGrath, left, and Odelia Forman create a mural in the style of a French bistro in a space under the stairwell just outside the school cafeteria. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School seniors, from foreground left, Jenezy Ortiz, Michelle Mott and Rhys White work Tuesday, April 10, 2018, on a mural that will be installed in a second floor hallway. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School seniors Rhys White, left, Michelle Mott and Jenezy Ortiz work Tuesday, April 10, 2018, on a mural that will be installed on the second floor outside the biology classrooms. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School seniors Jenezy Ortiz, left, and Rhys White work on a mural that will be installed in a second floor hallway. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 4/17/2018 10:17:09 PM

In Lisa Leary’s art classroom on the third floor of Northampton High School, a Michelangelo quote is sprawled across a large banner that hangs above the whiteboard.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark,” the banner reads.

For Leary and her students, the quote is more than cliche inspiration. It’s an ethos that has helped mold the school’s honors art class into one of the most competitive in the nation.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be going to art school,” senior Kailey Weaver said. “The reason I am is completely because of Ms. Leary … I always thought of art as a hobby, but being part of a program that is this difficult made me realize I could do more.”

Weaver earned a $50,000 scholarship to attend Cooper Union in New York, one of the most prestigious art schools in the country.

She is by no means the only one of her peers to achieve such success.

Naomi Claire Brenneck, who is currently working on a large mural at Northampton High with Weaver and fellow senior Breena Brown, will attend the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, earning a presidential scholarship and a spot in the first year scholar’s program, which includes a grant to visit Italy.

Brown is currently undecided, but has been accepted by Parsons School of Design and the Mass. College of Art and Design. Senior Inde Francis plans to attend the Mass. College of Art and Design, earning a free ride.

Leary’s students have also taken home a trove of national and regional awards for their work this year.

Francis, Brenneck and Brown were among students who won Scholastic Gold Key awards at the state level this year. Senior Tashi Salsedo received Scholastic honorable mentions. Francis also earned a national Scholastic Silver Medal for his portfolio of work.

Several of Leary’s students were also recognized with awards at art exhibits held at UMass Dartmouth and Holyoke Community College this year.

“There’s been a lot of success stories this year, to say the least,” Leary said, adding that she has a hard time keeping track of all of her students’ accolades.

Leary and her students said that the rigorous nature of an honors art program is critical to students’ success.

Leary said she is harsh and honest when critiquing her students, all in hopes of elevating their work.

“I like to be both difficult and encouraging, it’s a delicate balance,” she said. “I take it really seriously and try to motivate the kids to be more creative and expressive. It’s so fantastic to watch them grow.”

The difficulty of the program can be hard for many students at first, but many come to crave the challenge, Leary said.

Weaver, Brown and Brenneck all said they were nervous to take the honors art class, but agreed it was one of the best decisions they ever made.

“The class is really tough, and some people get driven away,” Brown said. “But we’ve all grown because of it.”

Brenneck said she knew in preschool that she loved art, but didn’t realize it was possible to make a career out of her passion until she took the honors art class.

“She not only told us about tons of different careers and opportunities, but the assignments we do change the way you think about art as a whole,” she said.

Senior Lilli Fowler, who took home a second place prize at this year’s UMass Dartmouth showcase, said she’s unsure whether she’ll pursuit art as a career, but said she still thinks being a part of the program has been a valuable experience for her.

All students who were interviewed agreed that their classmates are very supportive of each other, and that the intensity of the program has brought them closer together.

Seniors in the program also all have the opportunity to work on large murals throughout the school that will remain long after they leave.

“I think the murals really brighten up the school and make it a livelier place,” Leary said. “They show that the human spirit inhabits this place.”

One student, senior Lindsey Crouss, will leave her fingerprint on the landscape of downtown Northampton. She’s currently working on a large mural on the outside of a building at 155 Pleasant St.

Weaver said that when she was younger, she was inspired by the murals high school students before her created.

“It’s something I always wanted to do. I really looked up to them, and hopefully younger students might look up to our’s and want to aspire to them,” she said.


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