This story is part of WABE and American Graduate's Advancing Atlanta: Education series. For more stories, click here.
This past weekend, students from seven different high schools – Grady, North Atlanta, Brookwood, North Gwinett, Union Grove, North Springs and Riverwood – gathered at the High Museum of Art for Art Throwdown.
Art Throwdown is not an exhibition. It’s an adrenaline-filled, sweaty competition. Grady High School’s visual arts teacher John Brandhorst was the moderator for much of the event.
Before the most heated challenge, the "face-to-face," he dramatically said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a sprint. This is a boxing match. You are going to beat the person across from you.”
During the "face-to-face," 24 students sat across from each other at a long table, drawing the face of the person sitting across from them – in four minutes. After each round, half were eliminated, and the time in which they were allowed to draw decreased.
“My kid won last time, and she nearly wet her pants,” said Natalie Brandhorst, the visual arts teacher from North Atlanta. John Brandhorst is her husband.
John Brandhorst started Art Throwdown seven years ago with artist Jeff Mather.
He saw that, in Georgia, there are plenty of statewide competitions for high schoolers: Mock Trial; the Georgia Thespians; All State Orchestra, band and chorus; and of course, statewide sports tournaments.
But John Brandhorst didn’t see anything like that for visual arts in Georgia or anywhere in the country.
“Every other art has this ... head-to-head competition where they really meet their peers somewhere else, doing what they do,” he said, "as opposed to the exhibition, where the work is on the walls and nobody gets to see anything."
During past events, Art Throwdowns have been held at places like the Botanical Gardens and the Savannah College of Art’s Atlanta campus. Along with the face-to-face competition, there are other categories like graphic design, sculpture, curation, art writing and figure drawing.
North Atlanta students placed in several of the top three slots for figure drawing. Zurrie Scott got third in the five minute category.
“It was really stressful,” she said. “My heart is beating really fast.”
Local artist Jessica Caldas judged each round of the figure drawing. She said that at Art Throwdown, art students can energize their usually solitary visual arts practice by interacting and observing other students at work.
“These competitions can be really great for students because for one, we’re here in the High Museum,” she said. “I’m sure it gives students a sense of validation to be here drawing in a public space, a very important public space in the arts community here.”
Along with Caldas, other local artists, designers and professors came to judge each competition. Georgia State and SCAD students competed as well to demonstrate what’s going on at the college level.
Artist Jeff Mather, the other founder of Art Throwdown, sees this event as engagement beyond the arts community as well.
“The skill set that young students develop making art is something that is increasingly needed in the wider community,” Mather said, “the problem solving skills, the collaborative skills, the communication skills, as well as the facility with tools and materials.”
Mather was the time keeper for the sculpture competition, which took place in a classroom below the atrium. The students had 60 minutes to transform pins, cardboard and whatever else they brought into a comprehensive piece.
Meanwhile, North Atlanta student Sinclair Sparkes spent 90 minutes running (literally) around the High for the Vine challenge. He had to make a six second video with music and post it to Vine’s website.
“Me personally I’m artistic but I can’t draw very well, I can’t paint well, I can build, but I can do a lot on the computer,” he said.
Digital media hasn’t been incorporated into most high school art classrooms, and one big part of Art Throwdown is to push students to do something that’s not available to them at school. That includes performance art.
“I think school doesn’t do a great job in any discipline to push kids out of their comfort zones,” John Brandhorst said. “The performance art thing has been around forever, but schools usually don’t touch it because it’s too weird. And it takes some studying and digging to figure out how to reset the typical rhythm of performance and be seriously weird.”
For the performance art competition, teams brought violins, guitars, drums and a typewriter for their instruments, and several teams recited abstract, original poetry. One team’s vocalist shouted “fail” over and over again.
Each group also had a mark maker, and by the end of each performance, they were usually a mess in charcoal or graphite.
North Atlanta’s Hannah Keller was the mark maker for her team, and despite the mess, she thought it was a rewarding experience. She said, “I think performance is a really honest way to express ideas that you have, and it’s the most experimental in my opinion. So, it’d be cool to see that more in school.”
Debbie West is a visual art teacher at North Gwinnett, and she’s been bringing her students to Art Throwdown for five years.
“It’s one thing to have that finished piece of artwork that we’re in a closed room creating, but to get it out there and for people see the process and thought and to watch these kids in the moment, it’s is the sporting event,” she said. "It’s incredible. It’s the key."
Teachers and judges aren’t paid to participate in this event. They do it because of their passion for arts education, but also because it’s a time for teachers to actually see each other.
“Often teachers are left on their own little islands,” John Brandhorst said. “The typical way of doing business is we are all very isolated, and [Throwdown] requires us to get together. We have colleagues across systems. And usually you don’t even meet your colleagues across districts, let alone the state.”
The competitions came to an end at 1 p.m. In an assembly room at the High, John Brandhorst announced the winners, whose biggest prize was bragging rights.
“In second place with 80 points, North Gwinnett, which means that in first place is North Atlanta,” he announced with lots of accompanying cheers.
From experimentation and competition, Art Throwdown adds to the high school art experience, but intensive arts experiences like these have an even more tangible benefit. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, students who participate in intensive art experiences are more likely to get A’s in college and get a bachelor’s degree. Students who take extensive art classes in school are also more likely to even aspire to go to college, and many of the students at Art Throwdown specifically said they wanted to go to art school.
John Brandhorst has ambitions to make Art Throwdown a bigger event by recruiting schools from across the state and also by sharing the idea with other states. He and the other Throwdown organizers, though, have to make some tough decisions. They are debating whether to brand the competition and establish a board or keep Art Throwdown in its current anarchical state.
Regardless of direction, John Brandhorst sees this as an important addendum to high school art education to empower students and their student art.
“I want to get back to the kids that what they do is on par with the professional art,” he said. “To blur that perceived boundary between high school art, school art and real art.”
In the meantime, teachers and artists are preparing for the next Art Throwdown in April at the Dogwood Festival.
This story is part of American Graduate, Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.