Meet the Winners of the 2018 VSA Emerging Young Artists Competition


Group photograph of the 2018 VSA Emerging Young Artists with executives from the Kennedy Center and Volkswagen Group of America.

Since 2002, the Kennedy Center and Volkswagen Group of America have teamed up for the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, to recognize and showcase the work of emerging young artists living with disabilities, ages 16-25, who are currently residing in the United States. Detour, the 17th exhibition presented as part of the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, gives 15 young artists the opportunity to display their work in venues across the United States where each artist’s individual talent, mode of expression, and view of the world is showcased and valued.

The theme of this exhibition was inspired by the notion that with a detour, the destination remains the same but the journey to reach it can be full of wonder and discovery. These artists have embraced life’s detours, and their works take us on surprising forays off the beaten path. The artwork seen here explores themes of material transformation, storytelling, and identity. Whether navigating the twists and turns of an inner landscape, or expanding upon quiet moments of pause and reflection found in everyday life, these artists make visible what is often overlooked, and delve into the unexpected.

Untitled (#1), a black and white photograph of two children and a hand holding a smart phone

Tyler Williams, Grand Prize Award
Untitled (#1), 2018
Photograph (17 in x 22 in)

In his documentary-style portraits, Tyler Williams creates a space for black people with multiple identities to choose for themselves how they want to be heard and represented, as he himself finds a place within his work to do the same. Williams’ work often incorporates illustration, text, and audio elements, which he uses to enhance the connection between the audience and the artwork, saying “By doing this, I challenge the viewer’s perception of how they are told to interact with an image. These images were created by black people and are intended to acknowledge the effort put into telling one’s story and highlight the limitations in place that blocks the dispersion of that story.”

Williams, who has attention deficit disorder, attends Parsons, The New School in New York City, where he is earning a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography.


Growth, an oil painting of two hands resting on a bare stomach

Hannah Werchan, First Prize Winner
Growth, 2017
Oil on canvas (30 in x 40 in)

Hannah Werchan uses interspersed colors, impressionistic brush strokes, and compelling narratives in her paintings to convey the experiences of living with the connective tissue disorder, Stickler syndrome. Her piece, Growth, depicts the decision to overcome life’s obstacles, to grow rather than to succumb. Werchan finds art, specifically painting, to be a powerful and dynamic medium to highlight the physical characteristics and symptoms surrounding her disorder. With art, she is able to express the feeling of being deaf in a hearing world, or the feeling of chronic pain amongst her able-bodied peers. Through her work, she hopes to capture the experiences of a person living with Stickler syndrome and the patience, endurance, and resilience it demands.

Werchan attends Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Art with a concentration in Painting and Drawing. She hopes to work as an art teacher while attending grad school to further her art education.


Dragon, an acrylic painting with a central red object and green backgrounds

Yasmine C. Iskander, Second Prize Winner
Dragon, 2017
Acrylic on Canvas (36 in x 24 in)

Yasmine Iskander’s work captures the vibrancy of life and acts as a fundamental way for her to express her journey as a person with a developmental disability and a complex medical history. When asked what influences her practice, her answer is always the same: “I use art to express my love for life and for people. When I paint I feel it in my heart. It makes me feel excited and exuberant. I love colors. In art there is always something new. And I love to learn and make my own decisions.” Dragon is a manifestation of the strength, vibrancy and movement Iskander has found following her latest open-heart surgery. “As soon as I woke up from surgery my style became stronger like my heart. My imagination grew. I see so many layers, one on top of the other, all the way to the sky. Up, across, down, there is movement now. My detours have made my art stronger and bigger like my heart.”

Iskander has received painting instruction and mentoring at the Institute for the Arts (Fairfax County Public Schools), The Community Mentoring Program sponsored by the Arlington Artist Alliance, and the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.



 Earthly delights, a Tyvek tapestry

Coco Allred, Award of Excellence
Earthly Delights, 2017
Tyvek, Mylar (180 in x 48 in)

Coco Allred works in a range of media, including printmaking, sculpture, and public art. Her practice is driven by a desire to investigate the systems, routines, and infrastructures that make up daily life. Allred’s interest in nuance emerged largely due to the need for alternatives ways of managing her learning disabilities. An interest in art as a grand gesture, material transformation, and making with a repetitive rigor is integral to Allred’s practice. In Earthy Delights, the manual processes of paper cutting becomes a way to carve out light and shadow. A Tyvek tapestry cascades, casting shadows across the gallery and the work becomes a setting for reflection, rejuvenation, and gathering.

Allred is based in Seattle, and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


The Cow, a colorful sculpture with golden horns on its head

Xichao (Carol) Cao, Award of Excellence
The Cow, 2018
Glazed ceramic (10 in x 5 in x 6.5 in)

Xichao Cao created The Cow out of a love of bright colors and animals. Wearing a field of flowers, The Cow seems to sit solidly between two worlds, and its three legs symbolize balance among unforeseen instability. Cao explores this notion of finding balance to her life after experiencing profound hearing loss at seven months old, and receiving a cochlear implant at five years old. While making her ceramic creations, Cao says her hands “take on a life of their own,” creating a world of whimsy that is playful and full of surprise.

Cao was born in Qingdao, China, and moved to New York in 2011. She is currently studying fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York, New York.


Paranoia: I am the Hurricane, a photograph of a woman in a white sweatshirt, with her hand in her hair, standing in front of green branches

Chance DeVille, Award of Excellence
Paranoia: I am the Hurricane, 2017
Photograph (24 in x 36 in)

As a photographer, Chance DeVille revisits a childhood in which he maintained a physical closeness and emotional distance with his mother, the subject of Paranoia: I am the Hurricane and the series from which it comes, Mother’s Derangement. DeVille’s work delves into his mother’s headspace as she navigates reality as a person with paranoid schizophrenia and recovers from an abusive marriage, often using drugs and alcohol to cope. In the photograph seen here, DeVille’s mother’s gaze is compelling yet secretive, and the lush green foliage in the background could be a surreal mirage, or a reflection of a dangerous and seductive inner landscape. DeVille, who has post traumatic stress disorder, focuses his work on mental illness and how it affects individuals as well as their loved ones.

DeVille received a Bachelor of Arts from McNeese State University, and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at Florida State University.


The Scars Inside, a photograph of a hand scratching a wall above an electrical outlet

Joshua Dixon, Award of Excellence
The Scars Inside, 2016
Digitally manipulated photograph (13 in x 20 in)

As a child, Joshua Dixon was attacked by two pit bulls in his neighborhood and lost 80% of his face and most of his vision in one eye. During his time recovering in the hospital throughout approximately 60 facial reconstruction surgeries, Dixon turned toward art therapy as a form of healing. Art also helped him deal with the trauma of being bullied at school for his appearance. The double exposure in The Scars Inside speaks to Dixon’s overlapping identities, and the words carved into the wall reveal Dixon’s internal monologue as he discovers and defines aspects of himself. Dixon views his work as visual storytelling, and hopes to use his art to tell the stories of others as well.

Dixon is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Art in Photography at Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine.


Streamlined Structure I, an acrylic painting on clayboard with a blue background, tan and green gridded structures

Thomas Haley, Award of Excellence
Streamlined Structure I, 2017
Acrylic on clayboard (19 in x 11 in x 1 in)

Streamlined Structure I presents a graphic representation of the lack of infrastructure for people who use mobility devices, such as wheelchairs and scooters, and is part of a larger body of work called Pathfinder. As a person with limited mobility from Becker muscular dystrophy, Thomas Haley’s work has significant personal relevance. The process for creating these paintings began with photographs of skyscrapers that Haley simplified into map-like patterns. After adding multiple layers of paint, aberrations appear and “pathways” become obscured. Haley identifies two points on the map and paints a blue path between them, representing the decision-making process a wheelchair user must make when exploring alternate ways of reaching a destination.

Haley received a Bachelor of Art in Art Practice with a minor in Disability Studies from University of California, Berkeley.


Four pieces of paper, each with four squares on them with comic drawings insides the squares and printed writing underneath

Kip Henderson, Award of Excellence
Altoids; Habits; Body Negotiations; Bed, 2018
Pen, marker, and watercolor on paper (6 in x 5 in)

Kip Henderson uses his art to explore his identity as a person with a disability in short mini-comics. Henderson has a multiple joint disorder called Larsen syndrome, has lost hearing in his right ear, and due to a hospital accident at 22 months old has a tracheostomy tube to help him breathe and is entirely g-tube fed. For this series, Henderson was driven both by his desire to satisfy others’ curiosity about his experience as a person with a disability, as well as to give himself an outlet to explore parts of himself he tends to leave on the sidelines. Henderson’s lighthearted comics are intended to demystify the disability experience, and comes from a unique perspective and ability to laugh despite various hardships.

Henderson attends Biola University in La Mirada, California, and is a Screenwriting Major and an Art Minor.


Smother Mask, a sculpture with the imprint of two hands on the top curve


Kat Katz, Award of Excellence
Smother Mask, 2016
Earthenware, glaze, acrylic (30 in x 18 in x 12 in)

Kat Katz works across many media, including textiles, sculpture, puppetry, collage and printmaking. Her work is a practice of reflection and examination of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, exploring and subverting traditional religious answers to questions around mortality and healing. Smother Mask was originally constructed as part of a processional puppet. The hands covering the face belong to another, highlighting the role of the puppeteers controlling the figure within. The hairline cracks and larger fissures arose during the second kiln firing of the piece, and Katz chose to incorporate them as part of the overall aesthetic. Smother Mask was made very shortly after Katz’s diagnosis with a degenerative eye disease, and explores the idea that we cannot control even our own bodies.

Katz received a Bachelor of Fine Art in Fiber from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.


Nervous System, a sculptural jewelry piece made of copper

Sarah McDaniel, Award of Excellence
Nervous System, 2017
Copper (29 in x 8 in)

Sarah McDaniel draws her artistic inspiration from her personal history, and uses different forms of art to raise awareness about mental illness. Nervous System is a work of sculptural jewelry inspired by McDaniel’s experience with post traumatic stress disorder, and is designed to resemble the chemical reactions that take place in the body during the fight-or-flight responses. The intricate design of Nervous System comes from McDaniel’s research into the structure of DNA molecules. The piece’s patina was created using a firing technique, which McDaniel relates to a phoenix being reborn from the ashes. The delicate, organic shapes recall the ability our bodies have to adapt, grow, and regenerate on a cellular level.

McDaniel is currently studying metalsmithing and psychology at Old Dominion University, and plans on continuing her education at Eastern Virginia Medical School for Art Therapy in Norfolk, Virginia.


Child Rearing, a metal print of dark lines and figures

Kyah Probst, Award of Excellence
Child Rearing, 2017
Metal print from digitally altered acrylic painting (20 in x 30 in)

As a child, Kyah Probst was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (an autism spectrum disorder), and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. Her artistic process is cathartic, and begins with traditional mediums such as watercolor, acrylic, or ink, which she converts into a digital format. The transformative nature of Probst’s artwork reflects how she has molded herself into a successful student, friend, and family member. By shining a light on her internal battles and creative processes, Probst celebrates both her adversity and accomplishments. Child Rearing’s cool blues contrast with the explosive design, and reflect the calm guidance Probst’s family provided during her chaotic earlier years.

Probst is pursuing a teaching license in English as a second language at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is considering an endorsement in art education.


Untitled, an oil painting with dark objects in the foreground and a blue and cream colored sky in the background

Leonafire (Alejandra Suarez), Award of Excellence
Untitled, 2017
Oil on canvas (36 in x 48 in)

As an artist with vision loss, Leonafire strives to translate her own experiences through imaginary landscape paintings, so that her audience may understand how she sees the word. A diagnosis of bilateral optic nerve neuropathy means Leonafire has difficulty seeing near and far distances with both eyes, and the nerves within her eyes are sensitive. Atmospheric imaginary landscapes illustrate how she sees in unfamiliar environments: opaque forms and hazy moments are captured in a mixture of vibrant and saturated colors. Leonafire amplifies the colors, forms, and random moments that occur while creating her paintings, and expands them to their fullest potential to symbolize ideas of growth.

Leonafire graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Florida and is currently a resident artist at the Bakehouse Art Campus in Miami, Florida.


Deep Pressure, acrylic and chalk portrait of the artist holding a dog

Oaklee Thiele, Award of Excellence
Deep Pressure, 2018
Acrylic and chalk on canvas (40 in x 30 in)

Oaklee Thiele draws inspiration from everyday events, and enjoys creating works that feature intimate or banal interactions that are often overlooked. Thiele’s work is an attempt to cope with past personal interactions. Deep Pressure is a self-portrait with Thiele’s service dog, Coco, who is performing one of her service therapy tasks known as deep pressure therapy. Coco performs this task by applying pressure to certain points of Thiele’s body to help mitigate symptoms of her post traumatic stress disorder. Thiele says that the strong bond that forms between a service dog and their handler is unlike any other: “It is crucial to me that I record and attempt to express this intimate and pure relationship.”

Thiele is a recent graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, and is currently living and working in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Untitled (part of Mrs MS series) photograph of a woman holding a glass of water on her shoulder


Jade Warner, Award of Excellence
Untitled (part of Mrs MS series), 2017
Inkjet photographs (13 in x 19 in)

Jade Warner views her photography practice as a perpetual journey of development and discovery. In her introspective and surreal images, she explores the concept of chronic illness, drawing from her experience with multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with at age fourteen. The lines of thread and reverse gaze in these portraits echo aspects of the disease in which nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged, and the body, in essence, attacks itself. Part of a project entitled Mrs MS, the photographs seen here are a means by which Warner makes visible and understandable aspects of her illness that cannot be seen.

Warner graduated cum laude from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Art in Photography.

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