The work of Jenison High School art teacher Sara Buzzitta will be among more than 1,550 entries on display at the 7th ArtPrize, which is expected to draw nearly half a million visitors during its 19-day run. For Buzzitta, who recently graduated from Kendall College of Art and Design, it's all a little surreal.
The arts have always been an outlet for Buzzitta, who was born and raised in Grand Rapids.
"Growing up, school never was easy for me. I had a lot of problems appropriately expressing my feelings. I always went home from school because 'I didn't feel good.' When I was in high school, I was able to put a name to those feelings. I was always a painfully perceptive person—an emotional sponge to whatever other people were feeling or expressing around me. It wasn't until I was able to be more confident with my art that this was a benefit. Once I entered high school, I was able to take an art class every day. There was so much confusion, tension, and indescribable emotions I was able to release through my art."
After graduating from Kendall in May, Buzzitta completed a long-term substitute position as a high school art teacher. She began teaching full time in a permanent position this September. At the same time she was finishing up the school year as a substitute, she was working to complete her application into this year's ArtPrize.
Buzzitta's entry is a series of six paintings, all of orphaned children from around the world, titled "Luminous Joy."
"'Luminous Joy' began as something completely different than what is has evolved into. I have always had a connection with children and feel like I am incredibly perceptive of their emotions. It was in one of my first education courses that my first idea evolved. We were talking about the different developmental stages children go through when creating art. First, children begin with scribbling, the basic motion of drawing and mark-making, then the pre-schematic phase, et cetera. There was a moment Cindy [Buzzitta's instructor, Cindy Todd] said, 'And no matter where these children are in the world, what type of materials they have access to, they always go through the same stages.' So, instead of paying attention to the rest of the lecture, I was deep in my sketchbook forming and connecting ideas. I wanted my first big ArtPrize entry to illustrate these stages, overlapping images of children from around the world."
In addition to Todd's comment, Buzzitta was also inspired by The Memory Project, a nonprofit organization that invites art teachers and their students to create portraits for youth around the world who have faced substantial challenges, such as neglect, abuse, loss of parents, and extreme poverty. "The Memory Project is a beautiful organization that truly inspired a lot of 'Luminous Joy.' Through the Kendall Art Education Association, I participated in The Memory Project in spring of 2013 and fell in love with Emmanuel, a young boy I painted from Ghana. When I heard my friend from college was working in Kenya with children at the Neemaland King and Queens home, I asked her to send me a photo of a child for me to paint and a description of them. I again felt a connection and love for a child."
When Buzzitta showed a family friend her sketches and concept for her entry of Dennis, a boy living at the Neemaland King and Queens home, they stopped and redirected her to the pure beauty of Dennis and his powerful gaze, she recalls. "As a painter, I have always been drawn to eyes. There is an emotional aspect to them that is often difficult to explain. I enjoy painting mouths, ears, noses, and feel I can do a nice job with that. But when I spend time on the radiance of eyes in my painting, there is this one moment that sends chills down my spine. There is a moment when I mix the right colors and place my paint strokes nicely in relation to one another I have created that so called 'window to the soul.' I have officially painted a person. Another human being who has feelings, hopes, dreams, a personality—all of that can be expressed in a person's eyes."
To choose her additional subjects, Buzzitta reached out to the director of the Memory Project, Ben Schumaker. "He gave me a few leads to contact and suggested I figure out some sort of form of release and to respect the child and their safety. That was when I contacted Steve Afendoulis, our family attorney, to hop on board."
Buzzitta's subjects represent each continental region:
Kenya – Neemaland King and Queens Center
Ukraine – St. Michael's Home
Bangladesh – HELP Bangladesh Samaritan Children's Hostel
Ecuador – For His Children Home
Bali – YKPK Orphanage
(North America – to be announced)
For her final subject, Buzzitta was recently connected with an orphaned child in Jenison and will be adding this portrait to her installation, which is located in the lobby of the Courtyard Grand Rapids Downtown, 11 Monroe Ave. NW.
Buzzitta said the response she has gotten to this project has been powerful—especially in terms of the people who have reached out to her to express what her project means to them. "It has exploded into so much more than I expected."
Written by Jennifer Reynolds, West Michigan Woman staff writer.
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Reynolds.