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Arts Fest Helps Young Artists Discover Self-Confidence

by on July 08, 2015 1:39 PM

Shirley Zhang, 14, stands under a tent on Allen Street behind two striking paintings: a nude woman wrapped in a kimono, and a portrait of a woman’s face half-hidden behind blooming lilies and butterflies.

A series of smaller sketches and cards, depicting nature scenes in delicate inkwork and watercolors, also lay on her table – but they steadily disappear into the hands of Arts Fest shoppers.

When someone asks Zhang how much her paintings cost, she pauses for a moment, seemingly unsure of how to price her art. Having never displayed or sold her work before, she has no frame of reference, but settles on $75 and $50 for the larger paintings. 

“I think people are responding very positively to my work, but that comes as kind of a surprise to me,” Zhang says. “I like the attention, but I also feel the need to be humble. It’s a fine line that I’m still trying to figure out.”

Zhang, a State College resident, decided to submit her work for exhibition at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts’ children and youth sidewalk sale because a close friend and fellow artist inspired her. Before Wednesday, she'd never had the confidence to show her work to the world.

A couple tents down on South Allen Street, Zhang’s classmate and friend Drew Spielvogel stands behind a series of detailed charcoal portraits. The State College native is no stranger to recognition for his work. He’s won awards, had his art displayed at universities in New York City, and exhibited his work around town several times.

Spielvogel says the people have reacted “very enthusiastically” to his work, which features intricate, detailed portraits of a variety of figures – including Penn State coaching legend Joe Paterno.

But Spielvogel says there’s something even more rewarding this year: knowing he played a part in helping Zhang take a major step forward as an artist by helping her find the confidence to stand behind her art.

“It feels great,” Spielvogel says. “I know she’s been doing this for a while, and she’s really good.”

For months leading up to the sale on Wednesday, Zhang ardently battled against her insecurities, slowly drumming up the courage to show her art to the world. But then, one day, something clicked and she had a revelation: “I decided I don’t care if someone doesn’t like it. It doesn’t matter, because I do.”

Zhang says her artwork is deeply personal, stemming in part from a perceived inability to accurately express herself in words. But when she sits down in front of a canvas, everything she feels “just comes out naturally.”

Zhang says she still has a lot of learning and growing to do as an artist. She aspires to someday become a professional comic book artist, but she realizes she’ll face many challenges along her chosen path.

But on Wednesday, standing in her tent and smiling as strangers complimented her art, Zhang’s first steps down that path were enough to make her happy.


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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