At ConnCAT, A Young Artist Hits Her Stride

Lucy Gellman | May 26th, 2022

At ConnCAT, A Young Artist Hits Her Stride

ConnCAT  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  Visual Arts  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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15-year-old artist Saria Reid. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The four queens rise in silhouette from the canvas, facing in as if they are all looking at each other. At the top right, one profile is midnight blue, wrapped in fabric that sits softly atop paint. Across from it, an orange and red velvet head wrap catches the light and glows. Another keeps it classic in layered black and white. Thick triangles of green and red run down the center of the image, the color splitting like stained glass.

They come from the mind of 15-year-old Saria Reid, a sophomore at New Haven Academy and student artist at the Connecticut Center for Arts & Technology (ConnCAT). Last week, Reid opened her first solo exhibition in the building’s second-floor gallery, where student art sits across the hall from Benedict J. Fernandez’ photos of the Civil Rights movement.

In the work, which ranges from painting and collage to multimedia sculpture, is the story of a young artist surviving a pandemic and coming into her own. It will be up at ConnCAT through June 10. 

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“I really like all forms of art,” she said last Wednesday, while doing a walkthrough of her installation before the formal opening. “I like how pretty they [her designs] look. I like being able to use my mind and be creative.”

Reid was born in New Haven and raised between New Haven and Hamden. Her story of artmaking begins in the sixth grade, when she entered ConnCAT’s after school program for the first time. As a kid, she had always enjoyed drawing and painting, but never had the opportunity to take formal classes. At ConnCAT, she was able to try different forms of art, from iPad drawing to multimedia collage.

At home, she started experimenting with new materials, using whatever she could to create work. Wednesday, she recalled using her mother’s shea butter to create a small sculpture of a spider and insect habitat that she still has. Her eyes crinkled at the edges in the shorthand for a masked smile, and she laughed.

“I’ve always liked art, I just never tried to do anything with it,” she said.

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In 2019, Reid stopped attending classes at ConnCAT because she didn’t have a way to get to the building after school. Her artmaking slowed down. Then Covid-19 hit. As her classes made the remote pivot, she struggled to concentrate (“I get really distracted in the classroom, so it was hard,” she said). Weeks of remote learning became months. Months became a new school year. In the fall of 2020, Reid was suddenly looking at starting her freshman year online.

Then she found a new “learning hub” at ConnCAT, meant to fill an educational gap.

Initially, Reid said, the transition was hard for her. She showed up to class quietly, and would sit away from other students. Teacher Briana McLean, who supervised the ninth grade room, remembered her coming in each day dressed head to toe in Black (it was hard to imagine last week, as Reid walked through the hallway in blue jeans and a bright shirt with anime characters in it). She didn’t talk a lot.

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Until suddenly, she did. At home, Reid started doing science experiments on her hair, keeping old strands to see how they behaved when they were no longer attached to a human head. It inspired her to get back into her artwork, she said. She began to try out new patterns and media, from oil-and-fabric collages to canvases thick with paint drips.

As she produced work, teachers at ConnCAT sent her home with more materials, particularly fabric. The more art she made, the more she emerged from a pandemic shell. Even when school resumed in person, she continued coming to ConnCAT.

“She was like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon,” said Steve Driffin, director of youth programs and co-director of youth operations at ConnCAT. “All of a sudden, she just blossomed. No more hoodies. No more hiding herself. Now, she has the most to say.”

“We’re so conventional, and I don’t think oftentimes that we believe enough in the arts,” he later added. “The arts can be that thing that pulls us through.”

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In ConnCAT’s student gallery, her pieces are spread out across the walls and a single low table, announcing themselves in brilliant color. A viewer begins with her series of regal silhouettes, painted in striking blues, bronzes and purples. On each, a folded length of fabric transforms into a head wrap, rising from the paper or canvas on which it is fixed.

The longer she worked on them, Reid said, the more interested she became in trying out patterns that might seem unconventional or unexpected. In the show, one of her queen figures sports a head wrap printed with motorcycles and bright flames that dance against a deep blue background. Another wears a soft blue and purple design that looks more like a women’s furry pillbox hat. They give the works a wonderful sense of texture, to which Reid has added a series of thick, piled-on brushstrokes in whites, greens, golds and blues. 

From her series of queens, Reid has also experimented with doll-sized fashion, frenetic, vivid drip canvases, and a series of abstractions. In bronze and black freehand, she has rendered the faces for comedy and drama. Beside it, ovoid, alien-looking shapes float in a sea of blue. Only when a viewer comes closer do they see that the work depicts fresh wounds, each sewn over with neat black thread.

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On a table at the center of the exhibition, two sculpted hearts rise beside each other, the size of large sugar cookies. Beneath them, Reid has cut up text from an old book. On top, they are fastened together with twine and fastened with a silver diary lock.  Beside it, she had turned an empty tin can into a snail-like form with discarded paint cups on top. A handful of large, emerald-colored plastic bugs wait inside a box that she has painted grass green.

“I think my images aren’t as flat anymore,” she said.

For the young artist, this is just a beginning. After visiting Sikorsky with her Girl Scout troop in eighth grade, Reid became interested in welding, blacksmithing and sculpture. As she continues to grow her footprint, she said that she wants to try sewing, photography, and more work with clay. ConnCAT is the perfect place to do it, she added: she basically lives there, and has become something of a mentor to other young students interested in the arts.

McLean, who taught Reid at a learning hub in 2020, said that she’s thrilled that ConnCAT is able to show her work. During the distance learning hub with eight other students, McLean watched Reid start as a shy, reserved teenager and become a gregarious, curious student who loved bright colors. When Reid told her about the exhibition, McLean said she became emotional. 

“She really came out of her shell,” McLean said. “I take so much pride in her turnaround."