"I really like how the tree aligns with the horizon line," says Justin Malecha, 17, cocking his head and pointing to a photo by his classmate, Mari Hougen-Eitzman, 18.
Other students in Northfield High School's honors art class nod.
It's Day 2 of critiques on their semester projects, and as they discuss one another's work, their upcoming spring show at the Northfield Arts Guild has them concerned about presentation.
"I might print them out bigger," Hougen-Eitzman said. "What do you guys think?"
Instructor Katherine Norrie agrees. She especially feels the time-lapse photo of star trails could be larger. "I think it could be the centerpiece," she said.
The upcoming show, starting Wednesday and continuing to June 8, will display a range of media and styles.
Malecha, inspired by Banksy-style street art, uses stencils to spray-paint bold, modern pieces — burly bears in red plaid shirts kissing, a triptych of a stag with pink bras and panties caught in his antlers. Kellen Robideau, 17, does charcoals of musicians like A$AP Rocky, Kid Cudi, Hoodie Allen, Macklemore and Bob Marley.
"I love music, and listening to music is my life," he said.
Mari Arneson, 17, drew from her Chinese heritage and painted pieces inspired by the Chinese New Year and China's one-child policy. On one painting, she overlaid the character for her Chinese name on a background of images — a T-shirt, baby shoes, a bottle — from the orphanage in China where she lived.
Northfield High School takes art seriously.
In Art I and II, the foundation classes, teachers drill students on technique. "We want to teach you the skills first," Norrie said.
It offers 11 art classes, and by the time students get to honors art class, they have been well-schooled in craft, critiquing, presenting and work ethic.
Students must apply for the honors class, and this year, 12 were accepted. They propose their projects for the term and fill out contracts. Arneson said the class allows them more freedom than foundation classes.
"Here," she said, "you can do whatever you want."
Students said the flip side of that freedom is a challenge common to many artists: getting started.
At first, Zoe Henson, 18, was going to focus on Americana images. "It didn't feel like me," she said.
"I switched over to brighter, happier colors. I work better when I use more color." She decided to use bright colors to explore themes of nature and beauty, she said, as she talked about her paintings of Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot.
Students sometimes end up abandoning one medium for another during the term, and Robideau said he swapped out pencil for charcoal to increase contrast. "It turned out to be the best," he said.
Malecha described Norrie as "a mentor but not a mom," he said. "She doesn't hold your hand, but she's definitely there when you need her, and she will give you her honest opinion."
At the upcoming show, each student will display six pieces. "I've kind of grown with my medium, and I think a lot of other people have as well," Malecha said. "So I think it will be interesting to see."
Henry Jokela, 18, who does vibrant, surreal landscapes, joked that one thing excited him about the show: "money."
Like all true professionals, their pieces will be for sale.
"They really get the feel of what it's like to be a professional artist," Norrie said. "It's really fun for them to feel that community and spirit around them to help them grow."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a freelance writer.