OLD LYME — Before she started drawing, she didn’t know how to express herself, said Sarah Conley, a senior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School and the winner of a Gold Key and Best-in-Show award at Connecticut’s Scholastic Art Awards Competition this winter.
“I have always had trouble articulating myself and it’s so much easier for me to express myself through my work. I’m able to make a much more profound statement than I ever could with my words,” said Conley.
Prior to attending Lyme-Old Lyme High School, Conley said she never thought she could make art, though she loved it and spent weekends with her family at the Yale University Art Gallery and lived around the corner from the Florence Griswold Museum.
“I never let myself experiment with it before high school. I would always choose not to do something unless I could do it perfectly,” Conley said. “I would just get very tense whenever I tried.”
But after her first drawing class with William Allik she knew this was what she wanted to do for her career.
“Learning that my mistakes are lessons was the best thing for me, it has really helped me in all parts of my life,” Conley said. “When you’re spending time thinking about your work and drawing you’re developing your creativity even more.”
Conley submitted three pieces to the Scholastic Art competition. Two were thoroughly planned and carefully executed gouache paintings, but the third – the one that won best-in-show – was a print she completed the day of the deadline.
“I didn’t even think of submitting it, I submitted two pieces – two paintings – and then my art teacher decided to submit this one because he thought I should enter another category, and maybe it will win, who knows,” Conley said.
The bright red print is a self-portrait of sorts. It shows Conley tipping her head back, reaching her hand into her mouth, pulling it open and perhaps screaming.
“I thought it was an angry, violent kind of print and I wanted it to scream at you,” Conley said. “I don’t get to use that much color in my prints. I found this red ink and I was so excited, I thought this print was perfect for it.”
The piece is part of Conley’s Advanced Placement art portfolio: In and Out, Playing with Bodily Orifices.
“I just love how much you can do with people manipulating their own bodies,” Conley said. “Those images contain a lot of vulnerability. It’s a private time that nobody else sees, like the painting of my brother itching his ear. These openings to our bodies… they always used to scare me.”
Conley is the first student at Lyme-Old Lyme to take the AP Art class two years in a row. As a senior, preparing for art school in the fall, she spends three out of her six periods in art courses.
“At first I was scared to fully commit to art because everyone tells you that you’re going to make no money and it’s going to be the worst mistake of your life,” Conley said. “But, it’s something that makes me the happiest. For my life I want to be making money off of doing what makes me happy.”
Conley isn’t the only one in her family with a passion for art. Her father also loves to draw, and her younger brother Jack Conley received a silver key award for his charcoal self-portrait. In addition, Conley has encouraged a love for art among others at the high school through the plein air art club she started her sophomore year in the style of the artist colonies that once painted in Old Lyme.
“We go outside in the springtime and draw the scene that is in front of us. You paint it as quickly as you can before it disappears,” Conley said. “I like to go down to the beach to paint and I always think, ‘there were great artists drawing this same beach once.’ The Old Lyme community really does appreciate art and I don’t think growing up anywhere else I would have had the same sort of appreciation.”
Conley said she plans to major in printmaking and illustration when she goes to college. She hopes to attend a school with a focus in representational art.
“I would want someone to know that I draw because I love it and I want to be better at it and I want to create beauty to put into the world,” Conley said. “I want to make someone smile or laugh, that is good for me.”