When Patrick Benbow's art teacher at South Lakes High School asked the class to create a self-portrait, Benbow decided to go beyond his physical appearance by painting two hands ripping apart a picture of his face.
"I decided it should really express who I am, not what I look like," Benbow said. "Nobody can tell you who you are and nobody's perception of you is the whole truth."
Benbow, along with 20 other South Lakes students, won an award for his artwork last week at the 2004 Regional Scholastic Art Awards. Benbow, an 18-year-old senior, also won a $1,000 scholarship from the Arts Council of Fairfax County.
"It's really exciting," he said. "It hasn't really hit me yet. It's all just kind of mind boggling."
Arianna Pieragostini, a 17-year-old senior who won a Silver Key award in the Computer Art category, said art isn't about winning awards, but the affirmation encourages her to continue creating art.
"It's rewarding knowing that someone else appreciates your work as much as you do," she said.
A future art student, Pieragostini has found that college art departments are often familiar with the South Lakes art program, which she says is known for turning out artists whose work is both technically and emotionally proficient.
The South Lakes fine arts department, which includes advanced International Baccalaureate courses, is set apart from most other art departments in Fairfax County Public Schools because the emphasis is less on how to draw a picture and more on how to express individuality, said Bernadette Monroe, the head of the department
"We emphasize the individual gifts within the community," Monroe said. "That's what makes our program really unique — we have a driving philosophy about the individuality of the students."
The department, which consists of seven teachers specializing in everything from sculpting to computer graphics, is unusually large for a school the size of South Lakes, Monroe said. More than half of all South Lakes students take at least one fine arts course.
WALKING INTO South Lakes High School, the first things noticed are the elaborate and colorful murals that blanket the hallways. These murals help feed a feeling among students that art is an essential part of a South Lakes education, said 17-year-old senior Alex Vargas.
"There's just such an aura about this place because of the art," said Vargas, whose art portfolio won a Gold Key last week.
Vargas, who lived in Bolivia for four years, is indicative of the multiculturalism of South Lakes high. Out of 1,660 total students, 764 — or about 46 percent — are either black, Latino, Asian, or Native American. That diversity, Monroe said, has helped give the students a global perspective that is apparent in much of their artwork.
Matthew Graham, a 16-year-old junior from Belfast, Northern Ireland, said the South Lakes art teachers have taught him to care more about his own opinion than that of anyone else. Graham won a Gold Key award for his photography, which focuses on the theme of doors and openings.
"There's no right or wrong," he said. "If someone doesn't like your work, it's their problem."
THE SEVEN STUDENTS who received Gold Key awards last week are having their artwork judged in the national competition in New York City over the next several weeks.
Sitting around the Ray Wilkins Fine Art Gallery at the end of the main hallway in South Lakes high, the award-winning art students said they were pleasantly surprised by the recognition and credited the art department for steering them toward finding their own abilities.
"It's just a wonderful feeling," Vargas said. "We've got such a great art department."
Benbow, who also won a Gold Key for his art portfolio, agreed, saying the awards are vindication after years of hard work.
"It's always been a goal to have someone come look at my stuff," he said. "It sounds kind of childish, but I thrive on the attention."