Creative vision: Westfield High School students explore the world of visual arts


When it comes to showing off their artistic sides, the students at Westfield High School have an advantage.

Students enrolled in visual arts pathways are able to capitalize on their creativity while learning skills that translate into the real world. Visual arts are part of Westfield High School’s fine arts program. While fine arts might bring to mind theater or choir, the offerings are far more diversified.

“This is visual arts, but within that is not just drawing and painting,” said visual arts instructor John Sterling. “It’s photojournalism, photography, graphic design, digital art, and of course still drawing and painting and ceramics.”

The high school has two full digital labs for students, where they learn skills that can benefit them as they transition from high school to college or careers.

“It’s really the foundational things needed, from the basics of design but then also we have the opportunity to offer them the same equipment and processes that they would be doing in college and career pathways,” Sterling said. “For visual communications or graphic design, they’re designing logos for mock clients or in some cases actual clients, like clubs that are at the high school.”

Senior Ruby Swartz, 18, said their passion for visual arts began as a sophomore in an introductory digital arts class, where they learned the art of storytelling through stylized graphic design. Swartz said they plan to use the skills learned at WHS in college and beyond.

“The teachers here really pushed me toward education,” Swartz said. “I’m going to major in art education, and I’d really like to teach digital art because I feel like it will be more prominent in the future… I did a presentation (where) I made a character and I got to make a slideshow and teach people how to make characters. I feel like digital art and traditional art are equal: They should both be appreciated.”

Digital art is exactly how it sounds — creating art on a digital platform, allowing the user to make artwork that they might not otherwise be able to create traditionally.

But traditional art is still a substantial part of the program.

Ava Gallego, a 17-year-old junior at WHS, has developed a passion for pictures as an AP photography student. Gallego said her family has traveled extensively, and those travels inspired her to capture moments through photography.

“I’ve always had a feeling for it, I don’t know how to explain it,” Gallego said. “If I see it, I get butterflies. So, this was just an extracurricular, but I knew that I was interested in the art area.”

Gallego said her favorite part of having photography accessible as a class, versus having it only as a hobby, is the opportunity to be creative. She said her favorite subject is landscapes, but she also enjoys portraits and editing.

“There are a lot of resources,” she said. “It’s kind of a break from school, too. The environment is really fun. For people, I like dark (photos). I feel like it’s easier to show emotion that way, just a lot of dramatic shadow. It just creates more mood and persuades people to feel what you want them to feel with your photos.”

For students who participate in yearbook, visual arts classes provide a true perspective into future careers in publishing and design.

“For yearbook, there is no gap between what we’re doing and what you’d be doing as a journalist or as a photojournalist, because that is what we’re doing is making a publication,” Sterling said.

Junior Nathan McDaniel, 16, is the photo editor for yearbook. He said the process of photo selection, layout and publishing the yearbook is as much a job as a class. He’s been involved with yearbook since seventh grade, and said he’s developed a passion for photojournalism.

“For college I’m thinking about going into media and communications programs, so I think this is really helpful to get into that,” McDaniel said. “I like the people and the access to all the programs (at WHS). I’m able to use Photoshop and all the Adobe suites. It’s just really fun to do.”

The students also said they are able to apply the lessons learned in school to their everyday lives.

“I find myself, even things I learned freshman year, I’m still using,” Swartz said. “Every single time I’m drawing, I take something that I learned here and I’m using it there, and I’m probably going to use that my whole life.”

Designing the future

Visual arts educator John Sterling said students practice the technical skills of design for digital art, which he said is a growing medium for careers.

“I see in the next five, 10, 20 years digital art eclipsing almost much of the rest of the industry,” Sterling said.

The students are already using those skills to develop their own personal portfolios that will ultimately translate into the real world.

“I have a camera at home, so wherever I go, whenever I travel away from home, I bring the camera,” said junior Nathan McDaniel. “I love taking pictures. I took pictures of the eclipse, and through the yearbook I was able to edit those photos and create a composite. I was able to use… all the skills that I’ve learned throughout high school and middle school in order to edit photos.”

Students’ work was highlighted April 20 at the annual district wide arts show, Rock the Arts. Some of that artwork will be showcased at Rivet Coffee Bar and Roastery, 337 Jersey St.  in Westfield throughout the month of May.