CRANFORD, NJ — There are paper mache sculptures, African tribal masks, watercolors, ink and pencil sketches, jewelry and pottery in the bustling Student Commons at Union County College. Down the hall in a vast gymnasium, a group of dancers dressed in gray and white and wearing dramatic face paint perform a modern dance before a pumped and cheering group of fellow students. In the theater beyond the gym, a choral group has just finished a performance to excited applause.
The energy was palpable at this year’s annual Union County Teen Arts Festival on Wednesday, March 23, and Thursday, March 24, at Union County College in Cranford.
The event, which is administered by the Union County Department of Cultural and Heritage Affairs and the Board of Chosen Freeholders, attracts more than 4,000 students from more than 60 high schools and middle schools throughout Union County.
Teen artists across all disciplines come together to showcase their unique talents on what has become a very special and much-anticipated two days.
County Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski, who helped organize the event, said the event offers students a unique opportunity to showcase their talents and connect with other teen and professional artists throughout the county.
“It’s an opportunity for students from all around Union County to present their art to experts who give them feedback so that they can improve their talents,” said Kowalski.
Students involved in music, theater, dance, voice, photography, sculpture, painting and more take part in the event.
“It’s a rare opportunity for students from different schools to meet each other,” said Kowalski. “And it gives them an audience. It’s a very positive experience for all involved.”
Kowalski said the festival, which was started more than 30 years ago, has kept up with the times.
“The event now includes a drumming circle, salsa dancing and etch-a-sketch,” Kowalski said.
Kathy Kakaletris, Teen Arts coordinator, said she has been involved with the festival for 11 years.
“I love it,” Kakaletris said. “The kids are so talented. It’s amazing how talented these kids are.”
Kakaletris, who is poised for retirement next year, said she plans on continuing with the festival.
“I hope to retire next year, but I’m still going to do this,” she said.
According to Kakaletris, about 50 volunteers and 55 paid professional staff help run the event. Experts across many artistic disciplines are called in to give feedback and invaluable advice to the budding artists.
“We get a very varied group of talented artists and performers,” said Kowalski, speaking of the many experts who give their time and abilities to the event. “They are retired professors and people involved in the arts. They say that they learn as much from the students as the students learn from them.”
Kakaletris says preparation for the event starts early.
“We start preparing around September time when the kids go back to school,” said Kakaletris. “December is when things really start gearing up.”
Lauren McArthur, a senior from Cranford High School, stands next to her artwork, a large infographic in hues of green and beige that focuses on recycling.
“You incorporate the images and important statistics,” said McArthur, explaining the artistry of infographics. “It makes it more impactful.”
McArthur says recycling is an issue very important to her.
“I’m really into recycling,” she said. “I’ve been using the same reusable water bottle for a year. I feel like I’m saving space in landfills.”
According to McArthur, she was inspired to create her graphic from her environmental science class. “I feel like all of the images that I incorporate make it really apparent,” she said of her passion for both art and recycling.
Eva Popp, also a senior at Cranford High School, is a photographic artist. Her work, a dramatic black and white image titled, “Distance,” portrays a teenage boy beneath a graffitied underpass.
The boy, a friend of Popp’s, who posed for the photograph, is looking into the distance, a reflective and introspective look on his face.
“Our project in class was environmental portraits,” said Popp. “It wasn’t supposed to be just a portrait of someone’s face. We had to get the environment that that person was in.”
Popp says the setting in which she took the photograph is under a busy highway, which is known to local teens.
“It’s a secret hangout place we call ‘Dungeons,’ ” she said. “You can see the sunset from down there. The lighting is very dramatic.”
Union County College President Margaret McMenamin says the event is one she and everyone at the college looks forward to every year.
“We welcome them every year and we look forward to it every year,” said McMenamin. “The event brings in what we like to call our future students. These are our future artists, the future leaders of our nation. We need fresh young faces.”
McMenamin said the festival offers a truly unique experience for everyone involved.
“We need to celebrate artists,” said McMenamin. “We can’t lose sight of the importance of the arts. We recognize that our world is made up of more than doctors, lawyers and accountants. People travel all over the world to see art. Why shouldn’t we encourage it right here in the community?”
Cranford High School senior Mairead O’Gorman, whose watercolor, ‘In the Still of the Night,’ was on display, said she got interested in painting when she was 10 and plans on pursuing a career in the arts. Her piece, a vibrant depiction of a dragon against a night sky, was inspired by the concentration she is currently studying in her studio art class.
“Our theme was winged creatures,” said O’Gorman. “I really love dragons and I really like contrasting bright colors in my pieces. I also really love night skies.”
Vicki Jenkins, a dance teacher at Plainfield Academy for the Arts and Advanced Studies, was there with her dance students, who were warming up in the hallway before going in for their performance.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Jenkins. “My favorite part of this is that my students get to see other kids perform.”
Recreation and Parks Director Ron Zuber says a lot of hard work and logistical planning goes into the event and it is remarkable to see it all come to fruition.
“I love seeing how it all comes together,” said Zuber. “We hear such positive feedback. It’s really kept its life, its steam,” said Zuber of the event.
Although the event is not a competition, there are artists who are selected by expert adjudicators to move on to the State Arts Festival, which will be on Wednesday, June 1, at Ocean County College.
“It’s a spectacular event,” said McMenamin. “We are celebrating the youth of Union County. It’s a joyful day here at Union County College.”