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Expressing culture through art

Cole Jacobson

When Cole Jacobson heard his next assignment from art teacher Kristin Bray, he didn't quite understand the concept of the project. After a brief explanation, the creative wheels in Jacobson's head started to spin.

The assignment's theme was "Youth as a Catalyst for Change" and was not only meant for art students at the Red Wing High School.

Jacobson and fellow classmates had been given the opportunity to take part in the Sister Cities International Art Contest -- a worldwide competition challenging youths through a variety of visual media, poetry and essays.

For over two decades, the showcase has given students from around the globe the opportunity to express their vision for a more unified, peaceful world. The theme reaffirms the power of youths in fostering positive change in society and their potential as future leaders.

Jacobson, a senior at the time the assignment was handed out, had a growing interest in art, especially toward the end of his high school years.

"I never thought I was good at art," Jacobson explained. "I was able to get in some extra art classes and kind of went through a creative streak."

Time spent after school in the art department opened Jacobson's eyes to a whole new world as he watched students in an advanced AP Art Studio class.

"To see their creativity flow and do what they thought as art their own kind of art made me think, 'Why can't I do that?'" Jacobson said.

After talking to Bray about his interest in the advanced class, Jacobson found it was early enough in the semester for a small schedule change and he enrolled in the advanced class.

Born and raised in Red Wing, Jacobson is a member of the Prairie Island Indian Community. His pride, devotion and passion for his culture have often been the foundation of his art pieces.

"I was talking to a friend and we had somehow got on the topic of the moon," Jacobson explained. "I kept thinking about the cycles of the moon - how it always goes up and comes back in the same way."

Part of the project required thumbnails showing the student's ideas for their work. "I'm not much of a sketcher," Jacobson added, "so I didn't have much for thumbnails."

But with the moon on his mind, his creation began. Taking a piece of flat canvas, Jacobson started by painting it with black acrylic paint and adding white stars. Next, he collected old cellphones, cameras and gadgets put them in a bag and smashed the electronics with a hammer.

"I picked through the tiny pieces and found the most interesting looking pieces," he said, "took those shards and spray painted them black."

Super-gluing the remnants in the shape of a moon on the canvas, he began to add the finishing touches. Jacobson asked an art student if he would be a model - but just his hand. After snapping a picture, he printed it off and placed the black-and-white cutout on the canvas.

"I looked at it, and thought the single hand was just too plain," he added. He then photographed the hands of several students, printed them off and positioned the group reaching for the moon.

"It was really important to me to have a huge variety of hands," Jacobson explained. "I specifically took pictures of diverse people, from a basketball player to a girl with dainty fingers to finding someone with long fingernails."

With all hands in place, the piece was completed after a month a work.

"I set it down, looked at it and was like 'Wow,'" Jacobson recalled.

Taking a look through his peers' finished work, he found the pride in his piece quickly squashed.

"I thought mine looked so simple compared to some of the others and didn't think it was that good anymore," Jacobson said.

The final part of the assignment was to write an artist statement, explaining the concept behind each individual piece of work. "I explained what the theme meant to me and how with new technology our youth can move mountains, both figuratively and literally," Jacobson said.

Local judging was done by artists from the community and the art students were present when the winners were named.

Jacobson, standing patiently with sweaty palms, fidgeting fingers and all, listened as other names were called off for third place then second place and, after what seemed like a century, the first-place winner was announced.

"I heard my name and everyone was clapping and looking at me," he said laughing. "It was so humbling, because I thought there were others that were better than and I had never won anything before in my life."

His piece was sent on to the international competition. Months later and almost nearly forgotten, Jacobson received the news his work was chosen as one of five runners-up in Sister Cities International Young Artists' Showcase.

"I was very happy," he explained. "My parents and my community are very proud and I'm so just happy to have been recognized."

Jacobson's work and the other winning pieces were recently on display at the Sister Cities International's Annual Conference in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Red Wing Sister Cities presented a certificate to him Tuesday at City Hall.

"In my culture the youth is very, very important because they are the future of our tribe," he said. "The Native community is very sacred to me and I feel very strong about it."

Jacobson plans on attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the fall, focusing on American Indian studies and then moving on to the American Indian Art Institute in Sante Fe, N.M., and pursue his dream of studio art.

"I find my strengths in forms other than realistic art," he said."I like abstract things - I'm influenced not only by the art in my culture but by quirky people that are not afraid of what they want to do like Dr. Seuss or Tim Burton."

For now, Jacobson enjoys a new sense of confidence -- and not only his art work. Life is like an open canvas as he prepares to make the next stroke.

Stacy Bengs-Silverberg

Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.

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