Florida Times-Union | by Beth Reese Cravey | June 8, 2021
A LaVilla School of the Arts eighth-grader won the 2021 middle-school “best in show” prize in an international art competition for middle and high school students.
The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes’ six annual ArtEffect Project asks students to honor “unsung heroes” through art. The center was established in 2007 in a partnership between education philanthropist Lowell Milken and history teacher Norman Conard emphasizing the power of one to create positive change.
LaVilla’s Naomi Alcantara received $2,000 for her mixed-media entry, “A Terezin Diary,” about Pavel Weiner, a Holocaust survivor who spent his childhood in the Terezin ghetto in the Czech Republic.
“Even when he was just a teenager my age, he pushed through the troubles of life in Terezin and had a lot of historical information he recorded,” Naomi wrote in an essay that accompanied her entry. “Despite being young, he saw hope through his struggles and worked hard to live life the best he could with his family and friends.”
Weiner spent the ages of 10 to 13 in the Terezin ghetto, a Nazi transit camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. While there he wrote articles for a secretly distributed magazine “that reflected his hope, patriotism, maturity and belief in the victory of truth,” according to the center.
A lot of moments in his diary displayed him being an average teenager with relatable moments involving family and friends, such as arguing with his mother and interacting with other children, even though he was imprisoned in a concentration camp and a difficult life, Naomi wrote.
She decided to showcase his story by recreating his diary and its artwork.
In that format, she said she was able “to give a more personal feel to it and share some of the relatable and historical information he had disclosed.
“A diary usually gives the viewer more personal and specific ideas on how the writer felt writing it, so I thought restoring and remaking a version of it would be effective,” Naomi said.
One of the entries in “A Terezin Diary” read, “I have little space and few things. … There are about 20 of us here. On Monday morning, I wake up and can’t believe how well I slept. We stay in bed until eight o’clock. The fleas don’t bite me anymore.”
Another entry, beside a drawing of people on a train, reads, “I wonder if I will ever see them again.”
Weiner was one of the main contributors to the 10 secret magazines.
“These magazines were very historically important, as they were filled with children’s drawings, paintings and writings, showing a glimpse of their feelings and expression of art,” Naomi wrote. “I hope that this piece of mine not only attracts viewers’ eyes but also shares remarkable information about the life of Pavel Weiner and the children that lived in Terezin.”
Naomi’s teacher of two years, Cheryl Lunger, said, she has been a joy to teach.
“She is one of those kids that always does her best and is very good at producing ideas,” Lunger said. “I have … seen her develop. She is one of those kids who accepts feedback which allows her to grow. I am super proud of her.”
Naomi was one of 11 students worldwide who were honored. They collectively received $16,500 in cash prizes from the Lowell Milken Center’s ArtEffect Project.
Their artwork is being displayed virtually on the center’s website and physically in its Fort Scott, Kan., Hall of Unsung Heroes, a museum and research center.
Weiner’s book, “A Boy in Terezín: The Private Diary of Pavel Weiner, April 1944-April 1945,” was published in 2011 and is available on Amazon.
Two other LaVilla students — seventh-graders Sophia Waller and Luella Legene —received $250 Certificates of Excellence in the middle school division. Sophia’s mixed-media work was about “Sylvia Mendez: An Unsung Hero” in civil rights, while Luella’s “Thoughts of a New World” celebrated suffragette and political activist Emily Newell Blair.
“ArtEffect winners show visionary thinking and creative skills of a superior nature,” Executive Director Norm Conard said. “We … salute excellence and the active imagination of our student champions.”
The judging panel included center leaders and “notable figures in the art design world,” such as professionals from ArtCenter College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, Scripps College and Pomona College, according to the center.