BY BEN SIMASEK — On a recent Thursday at Northwestern High School (NWHS), the hallways were filled with the typical buzz and bustle of students eager for the end of the school year, but for students in the arts department, it was more than just end-of-the-year excitement.
In the NWHS Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) department, young musicians tuned their instruments, dancers rehearsed their steps, aspiring TV producers edited videos, and graphic design students refined their digital creations. That day, the school’s band, orchestra, and chorus were on their way to Maryland statewide performances, after receiving all superior scores on the Prince George’s County Assessments. Several members of the graduating class were busy preparing for their senior art exhibition on May 4. Many seniors have big plans after graduation; the VPA class of 2017 has received over $1.65 million in scholarships.
Amid preparing their gallery for the upcoming exhibition and studying for Advanced Placement exams, twin sisters Eleisha and Tonisha McCorkle said they were looking forward to next fall; both had officially accepted full scholarships to study at New York University (NYU) the previous day. The McCorkle sisters have received more than $1 million in scholarship offers from some of the top arts programs in the country.
Together, Tonisha and Eleisha have overcome adversity from an early age. They were raised by their mother after their father left when they were 7. They took on many responsibilities in their household, learning to cook and to help care for their mother, who was disabled. She passed away earlier this year. Both sisters agreed that art has been a positive force, helping them to persevere, as well as to honor their mother through their creative expression.
Eleisha has received the Martin Luther King Scholarship at NYU to further Dr. King’s legacy of leadership in community service and social justice. Eleisha said she was inspired from an early age to serve her community. Regarding the MLK Scholarship Program, she said, “It’s in general giving back, which is something I love to do, because my mom always used to do that.” She described her artistic expression as socially-charged: “I focus on concepts such as whitewashing, isolationism, police brutality, and peer pressure that are present in our generation and our society today. I do this through video, photoshop, and mixed-media collages. It’s to bring awareness to these issues … that you have to recognize them and grow from it and try to better our next generation.”
Tonisha has been awarded the Steinhardt Art Scholarship at NYU. She has experimented with several artistic mediums but recently has focused mostly on paintings and portraiture. “I like to express the person throughout the portraits — see beyond what you see on the surface,” said Tonisha. She doesn’t shy away from challenging subjects. “My goal is to make art that you can connect to and to bring out my story in my art,” she said. She is currently working on a portrait of her mother.
Leona Lowery, the VPA coordinator, explained that Northwestern has always had a tradition of excellence in the arts. Many graduates have gone on to successful careers across several different mediums, dating back to the 1950s when Jim Henson, the visionary behind the Muppets and Sesame Street, attended the school.
“I’m excited to see where the program has come,” said Lowery. “One of the reasons it’s very near and dear to my heart is that I met with Jim Henson’s widow and we shared this vision to see the whole program move forward together. I’m amazed by the kids.”
After showing off a display in the school’s lobby commemorating Henson, Lowery said, “The Henson legacy is grounded here on this campus. He saw to it that young artists going on to study in the arts would have financial support from Jim Henson’s Legacy Foundation. I like to think that Mr. Henson would be proud.”
In addition to continued support from the Henson legacy, in 2013 the school received $1 million in funding from the Prince George’s County Public School Board of Education to develop a specialty program in the visual and performing arts. Students in the program have the opportunity to take a variety of courses, but also focus on a “major,” taking speciality classes after regular school hours. The school’s diverse courses, state-of-the-art facilities and dedicated teaching staff have helped the VPA program thrive.
“I have three art classes a day, really focusing on my career and preparing me for college, and the teachers are really helpful,” said Tonisha.
As members of VPA’s inaugural class of freshmen in 2013, Eleisha and Tonisha said they feel they have helped build a strong artistic community at the school. Though they are excited to make new connections in college, the sisters agreed they would return to Hyattsville. “Since we all met here, we need to collaborate with our friends,” said Tonisha. “We have to represent where we came from.”
“We’ve created like a family here through our four years together; it was awesome,” Eleisha said. “That’s what I love about VPA.”
The senior art showcase is Thursday, May 4, from 3:30-6:30 p.m. in room E109 at Northwestern High School. The event will feature work from the students’ high school careers and is open to the public.