by Britt Aamodt
If only high school could be like a season of “Glee.” Every troubled teen romance summed up in a musical number. Bad grades, acne and a cheerleading coach about as charming as an army drill sergeant just grist for the next song-and-dance number.
But high school, however it’s packaged by Hollywood, begins with an alarm clock and ends with the clang of the last bell. In between those sonic blasts, you have lots of sitting in chairs and trying to muster enthusiasm for Darwin, Shakespeare and the square root of pi.
Learning’s great, of course, but it goes so much better with a sketchbook and a No. 2 pencil. Ask Samantha Olson, 16, and a sophomore at Elk River High School. She’s the girl who sees a clean margin on a history exam as an invitation to doodle.
“Teachers would either tell me to stop drawing and pay attention or they’d encourage me and say how good my drawing was,” says Samantha.
Her mom, Sheryl, remembers those days. “I’d go to parent-teacher conferences and the teachers would tell me, ‘Samantha’s such a good drawer, but she needs to get her work done.’”
So a compromise evolved. Samantha would do her classwork. But those lulls in between, those were hers to draw.
Everywhere she goes, she takes a sketchbook. Walks between classes are exercises in perspective.
“I look at the angle of the hallway. I look at someone and try to figure out what an ear looks like from behind,” she says.
Angles, ears, the fall of light across a face, the width of a hand relative to the elbow — small (and to non-artists, boring) details, but important insights for an artist.
It’s this refined sense for detail and a devotion to practicing her art that has given Samantha her small but loyal following on deviantART.com, a website where artists can post work. It also brought her to the attention of friends and family and their circle of acquaintances.
Classmates had been asking Samantha for drawings. So, one day, she started firing off sketches. A dog, a cat, a mouse. Her friend Olivia took the mouse sketch home, and the next thing Samantha knew, Olivia’s mother was following her art updates online.
“Every year at Christmas, I give my uncle a drawing. One year it was a girl standing in front of a pond. Another year it was a portrait of a girl,” says Samantha.
Then, surprise, those Christmas drawings became the in-class discussion for a Sioux Falls art class. Her aunt, a high school art teacher, presented her niece’s artwork as an example “of how much you can improve every year if you keep drawing,” says Samantha, who already has this year’s Christmas art in the can.
It’s a fantastical portrait of two souls inhabiting the same body, Skaia and Serenity. The idea came to Samantha in a dream, and the drawing followed less than 24 hours later.
Her sketchbooks teem with characters in elaborate dress — “I’m a huge fan of the Victorian era, big skirts, poufy sleeves and tight corsets” — studies of hands and people.
In her spare time, and it’s hard to believe she has any, Samantha designs costumes for friends and herself. She knows how to sew, too, and has worn her creations to Halloween parties and Twin Cities anime conventions like Anime Detour.
Costuming, the visual arts, a high school setting — when you think about it, these could be the elements for the next high school musical, though it might be difficult to explain why a classroom of sketch artists suddenly breaks into Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Oh, well, that’s for Hollywood to figure out.
Samantha’s next big challenge? “I’m still trying to figure out my style as an artist,” she says.