Senior Dora Chen created this piece of artwork, titled “Xianyu”, that won her the MAEA (Massachusetts Art Education Association) Hat Sister Award. It tells the story of perseverance and a truly touching connection to her culture. “It basically means ‘fish’ in this Chinese proverb, where if you see a fish in the river you have to cast a net to get it, instead of waiting for it to come to you,” Chen said. (Credit: Massachusetts Art Education Association)
Senior Dora Chen created this piece of artwork, titled “Xianyu”, that won her the MAEA (Massachusetts Art Education Association) Hat Sister Award. It tells the story of perseverance and a truly touching connection to her culture. “It basically means ‘fish’ in this Chinese proverb, where if you see a fish in the river you have to cast a net to get it, instead of waiting for it to come to you,” Chen said.

Credit: Massachusetts Art Education Association

Dora Chen: The power and influence of art

May 11, 2022

As children, most people made finger paintings that their parents hung up on refrigerators. Senior Dora Chen has been creating art since she was three years-old, her ideas evolving and flourishing throughout the years. Now, 17-year-old Chen has won the Hat Sister Award for MAEA (Massachusetts Art Education Association) and is nowhere near slowing down her passion for art.

Great artists evolve and take their own life experiences to shape the path of their artwork. Chen has a very personal connection to the art piece that secured the Hat Sister Award, given that this piece is her namesake.

“The idea was mostly from my middle name, Xianyu,” Chen said. “It basically means ‘fish’ in this Chinese proverb, where if you see a fish in the river you have to cast a net to get it, instead of waiting for it to come to you.”

The neon orange fish depicts Chen’s goals, clasped within her contoured gray hand which is protruding from the upper righthand corner of the piece. Chen wanted to tell a story with the striking contrast of the colors.

“[The contrast in colors represents] me pursuing the things I actually want to do and reaching out to achieve my goals,” said Chen.

When Chen began drawing this piece, it was a low-stakes assignment meant as a creative exploration into her background and experimenting with different mediums in varied places, like balancing the colors between the fish and her hand.

“I actually just drew this for AP Art, and Mrs. Latimer submitted it to the MAEA,” Chen said. “It ended up winning [the Hat Sister Award], which I didn’t expect at all.”

The 14 years that Chen has been doing art has given her the opportunity to learn who she is as an artist, and how art connects her to the real world. Or, how the real world connects her to art.

“I’ve had my whole life to sort of experiment and figure out my style and what I wanted to draw,” Chen said.

She doesn’t have to be placed in front of a piece of artwork in a museum, most of her inspiration comes to her in the comfort of her home, where her ideas are completely her own.

“Sometimes I listen to music or watch a movie or film that I find really artistic and then I want to sort of encapsulate that in my art,” Chen said. “Sometimes I just sit down and think about the things that are on my mind and I try to draw that out.

Outside of school, Chen attends studio art classes, where the requirements of painting in school are lifted off her shoulders. Being able to learn techniques from her art teacher, while also getting the chance to explore her style, gives Chen the best of both worlds.

AP Art class fits snugly into Chen’s demanding schedule, balancing the rest of her senior year classes along with it. Like any other advanced placement class, each student is required to perform at a higher level than honors classes, as well as submit an exam that goes to the College Board. However, for AP Art, the exam is replaced by an art portfolio that is submitted to be graded by the College Board.

“[AP Art] is also so much different from other classes because there’s so much creative freedom,” Chen said. “It is basically a time where I can sit down and do whatever I want, and not have to think about academic stuff.”

[AP Art] is also so much different from other classes because there’s so much creative freedom. It is basically a time where I can sit down and do whatever I want, and not have to think about academic stuff.

— Dora Chen

While the world was plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen tried to look on the positive side of being at home all the time. She acknowledged that having time to herself made it easier to find a balance within her artwork.

“I think out of all the bad things that have happened, art has been the silver lining with the COVID-19 pandemic because it gave me a lot of time to explore myself artistically and what I wanted to do,” Chen said.

Whenever she gets a chance, Chen takes advantage of the inspiration around her and just sits down and doodles. Not only is this a freeing way to release pent up anxiety and nerves, but it also develops a portfolio that Chen can share with the world through social media.

The Instagram page Chen created, called “doddlearts”, has amassed over 1,100 followers and traces all the way back to 2017, where colored-pencil sketches mark the beginning of her art journey and document the progress of it throughout the last 5 years.

“I like to post on [my art account], usually just pieces I do for fun, not for art classes or anything,” Chen said. “It’s just a place to share my art.”

Hoping to pursue a career in architecture, Chen plans to continue working on her art at Washington University in St. Louis, MI. Keeping in mind the effect that art has on our society and ever-changing climate, Chen is fascinated by the world of sustainable architecture.

“I am planning to pursue a career in sustainability and I want to use my art and design to facilitate that,” Chen said. “There’s a whole movement of sustainable architecture these days that combines helping to sustain the environment and art principles, which I find really interesting.”

If a piece does not turn out the way she wants, she re-evaluates and gets inspiration from the most mundane objects. It’s all about the end feeling of the process.

“Most of my motivation or inspiration comes from the things that you don’t really expect,” Chen said. “I don’t think [art] is a serious thing at all, it shouldn’t be stressful, and just do whatever makes you feel better.”

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