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There is a lot to celebrate in March — St. Patrick’s Day, Women’s History Month, the official start of spring. But without doubt, the most creatively joyous is Youth Art Month, which currently is being celebrated with great verve at both the Greater Reston Arts Center and the McLean Project for the Arts.

What and Where: Youth Art Month exhibitions. South Lakes, Herndon, Thomas Jefferson high school artists at the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), Market Street, Reston Town Center. Elementary, middle and high school artists at the McLean Project for the Arts (MPA), 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean When: GRACE exhibition now through April 12. MPA, elementary school art now through March 18. MPA middle, high school art March 22-April 8. Information: GRACE, 703-471-9242 or MPA, 703-790-1953 or

On view through April 12, the GRACE Youth Art Month exhibition, always one of the visual arts center’s most popular, showcases the impressive talents of art students from South Lakes and Herndon high schools and for the first time, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The first of MPA’s two Youth Art Month exhibitions, on through March 18, features the kaleidoscopic and joyfully uninhibited artworks of students from nine McLean-area elementary schools: Chesterbrook, Churchill Road, Franklin Sherman, Haycock, Kent Gardens, Lemon Road, Spring Hill, Timber Lane and Westgate.

MPA will continue its celebration of Youth Art from March 22 through April 8 when the works of McLean middle and high school art students fill MPA’s Emerson and Ramp galleries. An opening reception runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 22.

Greater Reston Arts Center

“What makes [GRACE’s] Youth Art Month exhibition unique is “the level of engagement,” said South Lakes art teacher Matt Ravenstahl, suggesting it is not duplicated on such a high level anywhere else.

“[Students] are held to high standards but are given the freedom to be real artists, to exhibit in a real gallery space and to undergo the artistic experience in all its rigor, all its highs and lows. You can’t replace that,” he said.

The theme of this year’s exhibition at GRACE is “Emerging Visions: Invisible Cities.” Using a wide range of approaches and materials, including sculpture, painting, photography, collage, installation and mixed media, even a live ant farm with an underground city, all the works were specifically created for this exhibition.

They were inspired by a previous GRACE exhibition by sculptor and conceptual artist Evan Reed of Falls Church. Reed met with the student artists last fall. He discussed his processes and the underlying meaning of his architecturally based sculpture, especially the imaginative potential of cities as envisioned by Italo Calvino in his novel “Invisible Cities.”

McLean Project for the Arts

MPA’s Youth Art Month works by elementary school artists may be less intellectual but are equally vivid and engaging. The paintings, many self-portraits and landscapes, and imaginative ceramic creatures that fill MPA’s galleries also are part of two other major special events: the celebration of MPA’s 50th anniversary and Virginia’s Minds Wide Open celebration.

Minds Wide Open, whose 2012 theme is “Children and the Arts,” is a collaboration between Virginians for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and arts organizations throughout the commonwealth.

According to Nancy Powers Perry, MPA’s executive director, its two Youth Art Month exhibitions are among Minds Wide Open’s official launch events.

A host of elected officials turned out for MPA’s March 11 exhibit opening, including Democratic State Sens. Janet Howell and Barbara Favola, whose districts include parts of McLean, and Republican Del. Barbara Comstock. The three legislators presented Karen Keys Duval, chair of the MPA board of directors, with official proclamations, commemorating MPA’s 50th.

Howell recalled that Clive DuVal, whom she succeeded in the state Senate, was devoted to MPA and its mission. He built MPA’s Susan B. DuVal Studio for art instruction, in honor of his late wife, she noted.

Favola spoke about the rewards of participating in art and what an “eye-awakening experience it is for young artists.”

Comstock lauded MPA for being “a model for the entire state.”

Jane Strauss, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board and the Dranesville District representative, announced that MPA — which annually reaches out to more than 3,000 children at 35 schools, including “some of our neediest” — has been officially named a Fairfax County Public Schools Community Partner.

“Art is not an add-on in the curriculum,” Strauss said to a round of applause.

Members of the McLean Woman’s Club, which has sponsored MPA’s Youth Art Month exhibition for 32 years, heartily agreed.

“This is phenomenal what they do. It’s very rewarding to see the talent of young people,” said club president Virginia Sandahl.

Noting that many of the members at the opening reception are artists themselves, Betsy Kidwell, the club’s arts chair, said, “We are supporting our grandkids, supporting the next-generation artists.”

High school students talk art

Katie Rosenbaum, 17, a Herndon High School senior, translated her session with Evan Reed into a ceramic, house-like pyramid with small portholes. While each side represents the skylines of different major American cities, the illuminated transparency inside looks the same from every angle. Titled “Don’t Judge a City by Its Cover,” her sculpture, she said, illustrates that while “the outside may be different, inside [people and places] are all alike.”

South Lakes High School students Nic Querolo and Rachel Hume, both 17, explored the architecture of Reston Town Center at night, creating an almost wall-sized triptych lit by black lights. Querolo, who took the photographs, and Hume, who build their frames, explained that they wanted to highlight the Town Center’s architecture, which is so prominent in their community but often goes unnoticed.

Focusing their piece around the concept of invisibility and hidden elements, Querolo explained, “Night at Town Center makes it like an invisible city. … underscores the subtle beauty of our hometown.” The black light, they added, accentuates the feelings of solitude and grandeur.

South Lakes senior Bettina Van Meter, 18, who collaborated with Hannah Zanovello, took branches to create an intriguing, tree-like hanging sculpture, From its branches hang clear bulbs filled with found objects that represent different states of mind. “We were going for a dreamy feel, a little surreal … but natural elements bring you back to your roots, core,” explained Van Meter, who plans to study industrial design at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Maggie Middleton, 17, a Herndon junior, explored how culture and history impact architecture in a mixed-media wall hanging, shaped like a hand but made from recognizable urban buildings. She depicted her American buildings (including Reston Town Center “because Reston is my home”) growing from European roots.

She explained, “I did research on the major differences between European and American architecture. Our tallest buildings are commercial; theirs are cathedrals. … The hand reaches upward because as Americans we try to improve on these outside influences.

Herndon collaborators Rosa Torres, 19, a senior, and Sarah Betti, 17, a junior, based their brilliantly colorful wall hanging on the statement: “Cities have back streets, hidden alleyways and streets that seem to go forever until they reach a destination.”

The colors represent “the fullness of life in the streets. … life that at first glance might go unnoticed,” Betti suggested.

Side streets come alive if you walk there, too, and actually look around, Torres added.

Elementary students talk art, too

At MPA’s Youth Art exhibition opening, students, though much younger, had lots of thoughts about art, too.

Leila Jones, 8, a second-grader at Lemon Road, proudly held up her ceramic horse. “I like being creative; I like all the different colors; I like making stuff,” she said, admitting that she particularly likes working with clay because “I like getting messy.”

For Reem Alathari, 10, a fifth-grader at McLean’s Spring Hill Elementary, art has always been an important part of life. She has a whole wall in her bedroom completely covered by her framed art. Asked to create her own gargoyle, she said she looked at slides of this type of art from other cultures. Her imaginary beast was inspired by the art on a Chinese building’s rain gutters. “It looked really cool,” she said.

For Alicia Gonzalez, 10, a fourth-grader at Spring Hill, art and MPA are important parts of her family. Her mother, Kitty Gonzalez, is a longtime member of MPA’s board of directors.

“I’m very proud of her,” she said. “And it’s nice being in this gallery where I know she helps out.”

Asked to draw her favorite sport for the exhibition, Alicia changed it to a self-portrait of her doing her favorite “activity” — drawing.

Like Alicia, Anja O’Brien, 9, another Spring Hill fourth-grader, enjoys drawing. But her favorite thing to do, just like her twin sister Kat, is playing soccer. Anja’s self-portrait shows her playing her favorite sport, but “to make it less boring,” she said, she used her imagination and added some unexpected colors to the ground and sky.

Hoping to “make 3-D movies someday,” Aaron Ordover, 11, a Westgate sixth-grader, painted a vividly colored urban landscape at dusk with a big bold “weird” hotel front and center. “The whole thing is fake,” he said, insisting the word “fake” was better than “imaginary.”

Pointing to the cut paper “Be-A-Friend” T-shirt that she made, Spring Hill kindergartner Ria Wang, 5, was the most succinct in explaining her thoughts on art. “I just like it,” she said.