Northwest senior wins national gold medal and scholarship for sculpture portfolio

The sculptures in Brandon Brooks’ portfolio gave the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards judges pause.

And they kept coming back to them, said Virginia McEnerney, executive director of Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the nonprofit that runs the Awards program.

The craftsmanship and intrigue of the pieces won Brandon, a senior at Northwest School of the Arts, a national gold medal – the Awards’ highest honor – for his portfolio, and a $10,000 scholarship.

McEnerney said the portfolio was a standout among the approximate 255,000 art and writing submissions this year. His was one of 16 that won the national award and scholarship. “It was very controlled, very sophisticated – (the judges) always talk about how surprising it is that teenagers have both the judgment and the physical and technical skill to put something together like this,” she said.

So what’s in the portfolio? A collection of eight sculptures called “Decisions,” which, Brandon says, reflect a journey of his past year’s tumults.

One piece, “Truth,” is made of green-tipped matchsticks held together by hot glue. Another, “Down,” is a collection of opened encyclopedias whose pages have been cut into topographical shapes. Others are made of matte board and basswood, a fair-colored, flexible wood similar to balsa. “The Other Side,” made with basswood, is his favorite – it took him at least 30 hours – and was inspired by bridges. Some of the pieces feature red yarn or a gel medium that looks like texturized Saran wrap.

The portfolio begins, he noted, with solid forms (the matches and books), and in a symbolic passage of time, ends with pieces more linear and abstract.

Brandon said the portfolio is a look at his identity and the stresses of senior year. He’s been wrestling with his faith, contemplating family dynamics, and most recently, is torn about which art school to attend for college.

The sculptures are all about shadows, movement, space and minimalism, he said, and he’d like to be considered a minimalist. He likes that kind of art because it seems simple at first, but “when you look closer, you see the time, technique and love that was put into it.”

Brandon would like to be an architect and build custom homes, and someday he’d also like to open his own “scarchitecture” firm (a combo of sculpting and architecture) and make installation pieces in homes and hotels.

He didn’t always know he loved sculpting. (Which, for his portfolio pieces, involved several hours of soaking basswood in boiling water and bending it in a metal trashcan with wire.) Brandon said he grew up loving Legos, but didn’t realize he enjoyed the art until eighth grade, when he took a sculpting class at Northwest.

Brandon, a fashion enthusiast, works at an Aldo shoe store and plays golf for West Mecklenburg (Northwest doesn’t have sports teams). He’s also the president of Northwest’s National Honor Society and on the school’s student leadership team.

“I couldn’t think of a better kid to win an honor like this,” said Tamara Conrad, Northwest’s visual arts department chairwoman. She became emotional as she spoke in her classroom, compelling Brandon to leave his seat to give her a hug.

Conrad said Brandon leads by example at school and reaches out to students in both middle and high school. “He makes it easy for people to follow his lead,” she said.

Brandon first submitted a sculpture, made of toothpicks, to Scholastic when he was a freshman. The piece won a silver regional award, and after that, Brandon said he knew he wanted to achieve a national gold before graduating.

He’s excited about going to New York City in June for an awards ceremony in Carnegie Hall, where he’ll probably pick up more inspiration for his art (one of his pieces, “Growing Basics,” was inspired by the architecture of The Guggenheim). He’ll be shipping some of his pieces up there, and they’ll be on display in a two-week exhibit at Parsons The New School for Design and The Pratt Manhattan Gallery.

“Hard work pays off,” he said. “It’s not always easy. You just have to buckle down and do it. It’s a craft.”