Student finds a refuge in his art

Bryant Santamaria sees something of himself in Frida Kahlo.

The Hoover High School senior, like the Mexican surrealist, endured health problems and long hospital stays — Bryant while battling leukemia and the hair-loss condition alopecia, and Kahlo during treatment for polio and, later, injuries sustained in a traffic accident.

“She almost died,” Bryant, 17, said. “She had been through many hospital visits, she had many surgeries as well. I haven't had surgeries, but needles and spinal taps — the pain is unbearable.”

Like the painter he so admires, Bryant has found refuge and success in art.

A ceramic mask by the student artist will be among those displayed as part of the “Emerging Artists: High School Exhibition Show” at the American Museum of Ceramic Arts in Pomona, which opens Saturday. The work depicts a face with a protruding tongue, a partially exposed brain and a hand cast over one eye.

“Through my art, I show my past,” Bryant said. “It is how I feel on the inside, as people always criticize and say things to me, I tend to ignore it, but it is still there in my head.”

Hoover High School art teacher Gina Brownstein, who submitted the mask for the competitive selection process that precedes the exhibit, said Bryant's vision, and his stamina to see a project through, make him a standout.

“He has an emotional quality in his work that is really beautiful, and a lot of other students really respond to his work, so that when he is making his work, it makes them want to make better work,” Brownstein said. “He really inspires the students in his classes.”

Bryant first learned to draw not in an art class, but at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where he made repeat visits from ages 4 to 8 while being treated for leukemia.

“It was pretty difficult,” Bryant said. “That is where I started drawing and making arts and crafts, in the playroom.”

It was there that he drew a winterscape that he submitted to the Make-A-Wish Foundation Christmas card competition. He won, earning him $50 and marking the first time his work was seen by a wide audience.

After missing preschool and kindergarten, and then being taught at home for a number of months, Bryant eventually enrolled at Jefferson Elementary School. It would prove to be a childhood filled with family and art, but also guilt — Bryant blamed himself for burdening his parents with his health problems.

While attending Toll Middle School, he became sick again, this time with alopecia.

“My hair started to fall out. It was very difficult, because kids used to mock and point fingers,” Bryant said. “Some people still do.”

At Hoover, he found his niche. He signed up for as many art classes as his schedule would allow.

Art teacher MaryAnna Pomonis first met Bryant his freshman year when he enrolled in her advanced drawing and painting class. He was noticeable as the only student allowed to wear a hat to school.

“By the time we had our first critique in class, Bryant had produced about twice the amount of work as any of the other students,” Pomonis said. “He quietly took over as a class leader and inspired and pushed many of the seniors in advanced placement studio to step up their production level.”

A life-long Disney fan, he has set his sights on becoming an illustrator for the company.

“You go to the Imagination Studio and it doesn't even seem like work, it seems like something fun,” Bryant said, describing a recent visit to the Disney facility. “You see people in rooms painting and drawing and creating different things with fluorescent lights and glow-in-the-dark paints and it is really cool.”

In recent years, he has supplemented his school classes with Ryman Arts, a program designed to foster the technical skills of youth wanting to pursue a career in art. He has been accepted to the Maryland Institute College of Art, California College of the Arts, Laguna College of Art and Design, and the Otis College of Art and Design.

Bryant is now focused on trying to fund his education, entering as many cash-prize art competitions as he can.

But despite his busy schedule, he remains tremendously generous with his talent, his teachers said, and can often be found painting something for a classmate.

“They make jokes about buying his work while they can still afford it,” Brownstein said. “They know he is going to be famous.”

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