A young artist in search of new challenges

Hailey Smith, 13, sits quietly at her art table in J.N. Fries Middle School blending yellow, brown, green and black paints onto a white canvas.

She works quickly, and before long - instead of the portrait of a mud puddle most would have mixed - she has given the paper a forest, each tree caught in the beginnings of autumn. Their shadows cast on the green grass of an early afternoon.

"Seeing her talent, she needs to be doing more stuff, more challenging stuff," said Meredith Farrell, Hailey's art teacher, who introduced the eighth-grader to acrylics and oils this year.

Smith recently rose to one of those challenges when she was named a winner this year in the Professional Educators of North Carolina's 4th Annual Young Artists' Competition.

Judges chose Smith's piece - an owl resting in a treetop - over hundreds of entrants. Only two students are chosen in North Carolina from the elementary, middle, and high school levels. The six winning pieces are now displayed in the PENC Raleigh office.

"It's kind of overwhelming 'cause I never thought my art would be in all these places," said Hailey, a soft-spoken girl with green eyes, long brown hair and braces. "I figured I would just keep my little sketches in my little notebook and be done."

Not if Farrell has her way. Like an art agent, she makes the rounds to the local hospital, the credit union and the school district's education center, art in hand, to make sure the talent Hailey often downplays gets plenty of attention.

"It's just (too) good not to put it out places," said Farrell, who has taught Smith in advanced art classes for three years. "It's like that owl. I knew that owl had potential for something."

Hailey's owl was one of Farrell's challenges. The assignment: Use different shades of one color to create a design - and there was a twist. Instead of coloring with pencils or paints, only construction paper could be used.

The technique is called monochromatic coloring, and it's sometimes used in contemporary art.

"She took the different shades and tints and worked it so well together," said Farrell. "It was so creative and different from any other thing that I'd seen."

When given the multiple sheets of blue hues, Hailey said, the idea just popped into her head. A nighttime sky. A nocturnal owl in the treetops.

As usual, Hailey created the piece without a first drawing or rough draft.

"I feel I do my best work kinda jumping into it," said Hailey.

Hailey has been creating pictures for as long as she can remember: "I've been drawing since I could pick up a pencil."

Artwork from years past still sticks to her refrigerator at home. Her mother can't seem to take down the drawings Hailey made as a little girl.

The refrigerator of her grandmother, Kathy Davis, too, can't let go of her drawings. A self-portrait from age 6 has held fast for seven years.

Hailey downplays the picture as nothing special. "It looks like a first-grader drew it," she said. "It's got a face, eyes and a mouth."

But Farrell understands why family members keep them displayed for so long. It's also why the owl piece will hang for a year in Raleigh.

She knows others see something special in the young artist's works.