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Branford High School senior Sophia Irzyk is relatively new to creating watercolor paintings and low-relief sculpture, but her work in both mediums has just won notable awards in the 2019 Connecticut Scholastic Art Exhibition (including a Gold Key, which carries an $80,000 scholarship to Hartford Art School) and Shoreline Art Alliance’s Future Choices High School Art Competition. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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She only started working in watercolors about a year ago, and took up low-relief sculpting with cardboard as a challenge for the first time last fall. But for her artwork in both mediums, Sophia Irzyk has just won three major prizes—including the offer of an $80,000 scholarship—in competitions crowded with talented student artists.
The 17-year-old Branford High School (BHS) senior took her first drawing and painting class at BHS last year and says she’s grateful to her art teacher, Delia Kropiwnicki, for giving her the confidence to experiment and create.
“My whole life, I’ve been into drawing. But just recently, in my junior year, I decided to take a drawing and painting class,” says Sophia, who picked up painting with acrylics during the first half of the year-long class.
“We were working on the drawing unit, and I ended up just picking a photo out of random to draw for the class, and my teacher said, ‘Well, the background is too dark for you to draw it to really catch that whole feel, so instead I’m going to have you paint it.’ And that was my first time painting.”
Fast forward to spring 2018, which is when Sophia worked with watercolors for the first time.
“I guess it was a lot of first times in that class,” she says, laughing. “In the spring, I did a watercolor for the first time, and she gave us pointers like you want to work from the background forward, and from top to bottom, and to be careful with the white spots because you can’t erase anything. And I just went for it, and it ended up being really good, and it went into the  Hartford Art Show.”
The prestigious and highly competitive, juried, state-wide show, known as the Connecticut Scholastic Art Exhibition and Awards, is held annually at the Hartford Art School.
On Jan. 28, Sophia was thrilled to learn her watercolor landscape, a painting of the Branford River as seen from behind BHS, was named as a Silver Key winner in the 2019 Connecticut Scholastic Art Exhibition and Awards. But Sophia was in for an even bigger thrill that day, as the judges awarded her a coveted Gold Key Award for her sculpture entry, titled James Martino. And if you haven’t guessed by now, yes, the winning piece was Sophia’s first attempt at creating a low-relief sculpture—or any sculpture, for that matter.
“I did sculpture for the first time this year, so that was another first,” says Sophia, who tried her hand at the medium in a BHS art class with Kropiwnicki in fall 2018.
As a Gold Key winner, Sophia learned at the Jan. 28 ceremony that she would be offered an $80,000 scholarship ($20,000 per year for four years) to attend Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford (UHart). She’s applied to UHart and is waiting for a decision. She’s also applying to Paier College of Art.
To say Sophia was shocked to find herself among the 2019 Connecticut Scholastic Art Exhibition’s Gold Key recipients would be a bit of an understatement.
“The other kids’ art I saw, just from walking around the exhibit...it was intimidating,” says Sophia. “For a second I was thinking to myself, ‘How did I even get in? How did I get a Gold Key?’ It was a lot to take in.”
What took the judges in was Sophia’s low-relief sculpture, built up from layers of cardboard and incorporating pen and ink sketching, to create a portrait of her late grandfather, James Martino. Sophia thanks Kropiwnicki for helping to inspire her work.
“She had us get pictures of somebody that we looked up to and really admired,” says Sophia. “So I chose my grandfather. He’s been a big part in my life, and he just recently passed away in the summer. So that was a lot to process, and that kind of kicked off this idea for the sculpture. I just found this one photo [and] I was like, ‘I love this photo.’ It was of me and him, with me as a baby.”
In fact, Sophia had already incorporated the portrait into drawings and paintings before deciding to attempt to interpret it as sculpture.
“It was really challenging,” says Sophia. “You have to know how to work the cardboard and get texture into it, how to make certain things pop, and know what to place and when to place it.”
While she’s gratified by the resulting three-dimensional piece, Sophia says she plans to concentrate on painting as her primary visual art form for the foreseeable future.
In fact, Sophia’s Branford River watercolor was also selected by juried entry into the 2019 Shoreline Art Alliance’s (SAA) Future Choices High School Art Competition where it won second place in the painting category. Sophia received her SAA award during a ceremony on Feb. 21. Her painting continues to be on display as part of SAA’s Future Choices show through Tuesday, March 5 at the Sill House Gallery on the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts Campus in Old Lyme.
When she’s not creating visual artwork, Sophia enjoys other areas of the fine arts. She’s been studying piano for a year, is a member of BHS Mainstreet Singers (a competitive, auditioned group open to female students in grades 10 to 12), and, true to form, tried out for the BHS spring musical for the first time this year—and was selected. Sophia’s having a blast as an ensemble member of the BHS production of The Addams Family, coming Wednesday to Sunday, March 20 to 24 to the Cathyann Roding Auditorium at BHS.
“So that’s a whole other half of my life,” says Sophia of her additional creative endeavors. “It’s not just drawing and painting. The arts have always been a big thing for me.”
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