When Jessa Challa was in eighth grade, she took an oil painting class at Kendall College of Art and Design. For one assignment she lovingly painted a still life of an apple, vase and bananas and proudly showed it to her teacher.
The teacher was unimpressed. She said it was flat and lacked contrast.
“I was so upset,” Jessa recalls. “I said ‘I have to do better!’ ”
So she painted another picture, of a friend’s graduation photo, and used really high contrast. This time, the teacher was impressed indeed.
That experience taught Jessa not only about the creative use of color, but the hard work needed to create powerful artwork. She’s been a motivated artist ever since.
“I like to use colors to express emotion, either of what the picture gives off or what I feel,” says Jessa, 18, a senior in Northview High School’s dual-enrollment program with Kendall. “I want to move people with my art.”
Her teachers say Jessa does that very well.
“She is a painter through and through,” says Tricia Erickson, a Kendall adjunct instructor who teaches the dual-enrollment course. “She has a paint brush in her hand, and she just goes to town. It’s like she’s in another world. It’s refreshing to see that confidence in a high school student.”
Value of the arts
Erickson had other talented artists in her dual-enrollment course this semester. Five of the six students had works entered in Artfest, a high school art competition among U.S. congressional districts. Their works were displayed at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in an event hosted by Rep. Justin Amash.
Last year, Northview student Christine Mourand won the grand prize in the congressional competition and had her work displayed at the U.S. Capitol. The strong showing of Northview art students reflects how much value the community places on the arts, Erickson says. Its newly expanded and remodeled high school will include new art rooms with a computer lab between them.
The skills learned in art will serve students well in whatever careers they choose, Erickson says. In a recent Adobe survey of college-educated professionals, she notes, 78 percent said creativity is important to their careers.
Jessa is interested in combining her artwork with cultural anthropology. Her ideal job would be interviewing people then painting their portraits. She is considering several colleges including the University of San Diego and Savannah College of Art and Design.
“I like to learn about how people think, and what makes them different from this person or that person,” she says.
Educator/artist grandmother encouraged her
Jessa’s interest in art was encouraged early by her grandmother, Mary Ann Challa, an artist, teacher and former president of the Grand Rapids School Board. Jessa spent long hours painting watercolors with Mary Jane in her home art studio.
She now works mostly in acrylics, layering and combining colors to create vibrant, lively portraits, mostly of women. A self-portrait won the “People’s Choice Award” last year at Northview’s fine arts show. It also was featured in Artfest and at the Grand Rapids Art Museum as part of a Michigan Art Education Association competition.
Jessa also helped paint a mural on a wall at the Avenue for the Arts last summer in the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts’ ArtWorks program.
“I always feel so much happier after I paint,” she says. “It helps me just express myself.”
Capturing the culture
A self-portrait she painted this year shows her holding a staff and reaching to touch a glowing apple. The staff is a tarot symbol of equality and higher power, while the apple represents her search for knowledge, she says.
She is inspired by the work of the late Leroy Neiman, whose riotous, colorful paintings of athletes, entertainers and animals were throughout 1960s popular culture.
“I want to capture 2010 through 2020 and beyond – the culture of today,” she says.