Beacon student aces AP art exam
Most students don’t take the Advanced Placement drawing exam until their second year with Mark Lyon, a Beacon High School instructor who teaches a two-year course on studio art and drawing.
It’s also worth noting that the AP drawing exam isn’t a one-time event with paper and pencil, such as students take for math, English and other subjects as a measure of their aptitude for colleges. It is a digital submission of the best of a year’s work, tied together by a theme, with concise explanations.
In the first year of Lyon’s class, students work with a variety of media and concepts as they establish what he calls a “foundational approach” toward the exam. By the end of the year, “they focus on their own body of work, and in some ways that is the beginning of the Advanced Placement exam,” he says.
In the second year, students hone their skills and answer questions that will guide their work: How do I express myself as an artist? What theme will I use?
In other words, the student is asked to evolve as an artist, “which is a very, very challenging thing,” Lyon says. “The classroom becomes a vehicle to help them do that.”
Vanessa Murphy, who transferred as a sophomore to Beacon High School from Spackenkill, completed Lyon’s two-year course in a year. But faced at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year with choosing a theme for her AP submission, she was unsure.
For the exam, students submit a “sustained investigation” — a dozen or more works, plus a 600-character artist’s statement — along with five “selected works,” accompanied by short explanations of materials, process and purpose.
Virtually everything Murphy would work on during the school year would build toward the May submission, so the theme had to be something she knew well.
“I was thinking about things I come into contact with every day,” she explains. “Then I got hungry, and I thought: Food — great idea.”
As it turned out, the idea was great, as Murphy received a perfect score from the Advanced Placement board. She is one of only 304 students, of an estimated 20,000 worldwide who submitted work in 2023, to achieve that.
What does a body of work focused on food look like? Initially, it was bleak. “My Brazilian heritage, friends, family, eating disorders, mental and physical health have all been examined through the lens of my emotional experiences with food,” Murphy writes in the introduction to her AP submission.
Those feelings are captured in dark — thematically and in the colors used — paintings depicting Murphy alone, troubled by self-image and the voices in her head. In her submission, Murphy describes one piece — a self-portrait in which she has an orange in her mouth — as utilizing a “lifeless color palette, like a stuffed pig.”
As the year progressed, she began to consider other aspects of her relationship with food. “It can be very intimate,” she says. “When you’re talking over food, it’s a very personal thing to share.”
Other pieces show three friends, one with her head resting on another’s lap, with bowls and plates scattered about, and friends joining a girl at a table as she peers playfully at a cake marking her 16th birthday.
Beacon High School Principal Corey Dwyer was the first to learn of Murphy’s perfect score when he was notified in July. “Vanessa is an incredibly talented artist, so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise,” he said. “But to see that she was one of only a small number of test-takers worldwide to earn it is impressive.”
“I wasn’t completely confident when I submitted it,” Murphy admits. “But I was very happy to know that I did the best that I could.”
Lyon has Murphy, who is now a senior, in his class again for 2023-24, but since she took the AP exam a year earlier than most students, it’s more of an independent study, he says.
After graduating in June, Murphy plans to attend art school. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City is her first choice; the Rhode Island School of Design, where she attended a program this summer, is also in the mix.
Despite the accolades, Murphy insists she has plenty of room to grow. “I want to do more experimentation and challenge myself through working with different mediums,” she says. “I want to dig deeper into my concepts to understand why I make the art that I do, which will help me convey my ideas in my work.”
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