This year, Tiffany Suh received the Tadashi Sato Scholarship, one of the highest honors for a Hawaii high school artist.
Her winning piece fused East and West, discipline and freedom, old and new.
When Suh first got to Baldwin High, she had the refined techniques of an artist, but not the freedom to be creative. In Korea, she had studied at a rigorous art academy, where the students were made to draw the same form over and over again until it was perfect. Two years ago, she came to Hawaii with her grandfather, who is a minister at a Korean church in Kahului. She entered Baldwin as a junior and met art teacher Janet Sato.
"I would say that the art class at Baldwin is by far the best that I’ve ever experienced," Suh said. "Mrs. Sato couldn’t have done it better at teaching and guiding me to find my inner voice."
Last week, Suh and Sato traveled to Carnegie Hall, where both were awarded medals in the National Scholastic Art Show. To pay for the trip, Suh sold her portfolio. She set out her paintings at the Wailuku First Friday event last month.
"I picked out a few pieces that I really wanted to keep, but I wasn’t sad to sell the rest of my work," Suh said. "It was exciting and interesting to see the reaction of the people to my work and how they personalized it." Her paintings sold for between $60 and $250. She made close to $4,000, enough so that she could insist on paying for her teacher’s plane ticket.
Suh has received many awards this year, from the Maui County Fair to this national honor. But it was the Tadashi Sato award that held special meaning for her. The award is named in honor of the Maui-born artist whose work is in private collections and museums around the world. Tadashi Sato came from a simple background, was classically trained and became an innovative, respected artist after being "discovered" while working as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His most famous piece is the mosaic "Aquarius" on the floor of the atrium at the State Capitol.
"It was so emotional for her to win that, because just that week she had gotten a rejection letter from her first choice for college," Sato said.
When Tadashi Sato died in 2005, teacher Janet Sato (no relation) was given one of his hand-stretched canvases. She had every intention of painting on the precious canvas prepared by a master, but never found the time to start.
After working with Suh for a year in class, Sato gave her the canvas that had belonged to Tadashi Sato and said, "Here. You do something with it."
Suh painted "Search for Identity," a self-portrait that shows a traditional Korean mother in the background and a modern girl in the fore. It was that painting that won the Tadashi Sato award. Though judges didn’t know the origin of the canvas, their selection of Suh was unanimous.
"It was such an honor to paint on Tadashi Sato’s canvas," Suh said. "I heard many inspiring and uplifting stories about him through Mrs. Sato, so receiving a scholarship named after him was very overwhelming. It was probably one of the most honorable and memorable achievements this year."
Suh will attend the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall.