Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

Meet the 2020 Gold Medal Portfolio Recipients: Val Jett & Emory Brinson

Maxine Osa  //  May 12, 2020

Meet the 2020 Gold Medal Portfolio Recipients: Val Jett & Emory Brinson

In the 2020 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers recognized 16 high school seniors from across the country with the program’s highest national honor, the Gold Medal Portfolio, which includes a $10,000 scholarship. Throughout the month of May, we are highlighting and interviewing two pairs of Gold Medal Portfolio recipients a week prior to their virtual national ceremony in June. In this Q&A, each pair of recipients were asked a few questions about their nationally recognized portfolios, craft, and future plans. And, to make it more interesting, each Gold Medal Portfolio recipient has also asked each other a question to get to know their fellow medalist.

To start off our second week of the series we get to meet a pair of Gold Medal Portfolio recipients recognized for their incredible talents in art and writing: Val Jett from Louisville, KY and Emory Brinson from Charlotte, NC.


Meet Gold Medal Portfolio recipient Val Jett! In their nationally recognized art portfolio, “Self-Love,” Val uses self-portraiture to explore the concept of self-love through a classically romantic lens, and in doing so, learns to both accept and love parts of their physical appearance as well as what’s inside.

When did you first know you were an artist?

I've known that I'm an artist for as long as I can remember. I've been an artist ever since kindergarten, when I had nothing but an 8-pack of crayons and printer paper. I realized my potential as an artist in realism in freshman year, when my teacher opened up a whole world of techniques and media to work with. Realism finally clicked in that moment, and I wouldn't where I am now without that moment.

What was the inspiration behind your portfolio?

The inspiration for my portfolio was actually a completely unrelated piece! It was a self-portrait, and in the process of creating it I realized that I liked my appearance more when I saw myself in an artwork; it wasn't that I changed any part of my face, but that spending so much time on each facial feature makes you appreciate it more. I combined that revelation with my long-lasting love for the romantic, and I eventually arrived at my final concept.


What do you want someone to take away from reading or looking at the pieces in your portfolio?

I want someone to walk away from my art and know the importance of loving yourself on purpose. If you really take the time and look at yourself and know that you deserve love from yourself and others, life will become a lot more fulfilling. It's a difficult process, I know that from experience, but I want my portfolio to act as proof that it's worth the journey.

What’s next for you? Will you continue to write/create art in your future?

I'm not seeking a career in art, but I am absolutely not going to stop creating. I'm actually planning on a double major, with art as one of them. I plan on branching out my artistic abilities; I want to get into sculpture, as well as work to refine my painting skills. I've made it this far, and there's no way I'm stopping now.

If you could have dinner with one notable/famous artist/writer (living or dead) who would it be and what would you want to talk about with them?

With no hesitation, I would want to have dinner with Keith Haring. He's the artist behind the colorful geometric dudes that you see on shirts a lot; a lot of people know his work without knowing his name. I would want to discuss our experiences with being queer artists, and how that affects our work. I would love to be able to speak with older LGBT+ artists in general, but especially Haring because I admire his work and his philosophy on life and art.

Question from Gold Medal Portfolio recipient Emory Brinson: I looked at your whole portfolio, and it is beautiful! The concept was incredible, and as someone who knows very little about art, I loved every piece. I’m so interested in knowing where you began when you started with this portfolio: was it an idea? A doodle? A color? None of the above? You’re amazing!

The concept for this portfolio began as an idea! I began this journey with little else but a concept that I loved and two thumbnails (both of which ended up unused!). For a while, it was an idea that was on the back burner—I originally wanted to explore gender non-conforming women. But as I gave it more thought, I became extremely attached to the idea of classically romantic self-love, and the rest is history!


Meet Gold Medal Portfolio recipient Emory Brinson! In her nationally recognized writing portfolio, “A Study in a Lifetime of Elegies,” Emory uses her poetry to express grief for victims of police brutality and mass incarnation, as well as explore the joy, sorrow, anger, and compassion that accompanies first love and heartbreak.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I first knew I was a writer early on, around third grade. After our haiku unit, I found myself fascinated with the way I could break up language, shattering grammar rules to build little works of art. I wrote a book of (admittedly terrible) haikus that year and gave it to my family for Christmas. The next year I wrote the first and only edition of my neighborhood newspaper. In fifth grade, I wrote my first real (although still bad) short story. So for me, writing has been my passion from almost the very beginning.

What was the inspiration behind your portfolio?

The inspiration behind my portfolio stems from my experiences: growing up as African American, struggling with my sexuality, trying to navigate adolescence in the South, it all feeds into my writing. When I was putting my portfolio together, I specifically chose pieces that would tell the story I felt was the most authentic. I looked at my experience from a number of perspectives, exposing the emotions I felt to history, to the future, to metaphors, and moments I could twist and bend. Each piece, whether taking on a persona, focusing on introspection, blowing up a moment stuck in a church bathroom, was rooted in the raw messy emotions of growing up.


What do you want someone to take away from reading or looking at the pieces in your portfolio?

I want people to walk away from my portfolio with a sense of understanding. I hope reading it will open something up inside the readers, giving them a vehicle for seeing people in a different light. Though the specific emotions are mine, most of the pieces reflect the general experience of being a teenager struggling with their identity. I hope people walk away with a better grasp on the struggles we face as young adults growing up, especially within marginalized groups.  

What’s next for you? Will you continue to write in your future?

I’m headed to Brown University in the fall. I’m planning on double concentrating in International and Public Affairs and Literary Arts, the creative writing program at Brown. I have a number of writing projects lined up, and I’m very excited to keep writing and creating in the future!

If you could have dinner with one notable/famous writer (living or dead) who would it be and what would you want to talk about with them?

I would want to have a long sit down with Danez Smith, an incredible contemporary poet who deals with a multitude of issues in their pieces, including being black, queer, and HIV positive. Their poems are complex and distinct, and I would love to pick their brain about their experiences and how they put them into their work. They host a podcast called Verses with Franny Choi, and honestly they just sound like a fascinating person to talk to. I would want to discuss life, art, and writing with them. 


Question from Gold Medal Portfolio Recipient Val Jett: As someone not very well versed in writing from experience, how do you gain the courage to make yourself vulnerable in writing, and really put yourself out into the world? Great work, and congratulations.

For me, writing is an exercise of giving and taking. I am always looking for the perfect space between oversharing and hiding behind a mask, so it always takes some editing to find the middle ground. That being said, in my many pieces I have stopped just short, wavering towards telling the "easy" story. This is where that "courage" you alluded to comes into play. At those moments, I think about the work as a whole. I ask myself what I am trying to convey, what conversations the work can start or continue, and how I will feel if I leave the work without a little bit of vulnerability. Most of the time, the answer is clear: without putting myself into the world, my writing lacks life, meaning, and authenticity. To be truly authentic, which is what I strive for in all of my writing, I have to give a little bit of myself. It's always scary, but it is also always rewarding. I hope that answered the question!

Stay tuned for later in the week when we get to know another pair of Gold Medal Portfolio recipients!

If you’re interested in learning more about past and present Gold Medal Portfolio winners visit the Eyes on the Prize series on the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers blog.  


Cover photo: VAL JETT; Tête-à-Tête; Drawing/Illustration;  Photos in body: VAL JETT, Headshot, Photograph; VAL JETT, Adhesive Affection, Drawing/Illustration; VAL JETT, Tête-à-Tête , Drawing/Illustration; EMORY BRINSON, Headshot, Photograph; EMORY BRINSON, Aubade on Rainy Sunday, Writing ; EMORY BRINSON, A Study in a Lifetime of Elegies, Writing