Dylan Guest's elementary school world was full of frustration and embarrassment. Everything about his special education classes was a struggle. He came home each day demoralized and asked his mother why people called him a "retard."
And then in fifth grade he drew a very large beetle on a big piece of paper.
It was almost as though Dylan had held a magnifying glass up to his subject. Only the front half of the beetle is perched on a green leaf, a perspective that spoke of an unusual, artistic talent, the teacher told his mother.
Dylan's parents and
teachers nurtured that gift through the years. And they transformed an insecure, socially awkward child into a self-confident artist who will go off to the
this week, having won two national awards, and who dreams of a career as a professional artist.
"He is not handicapped in art at all. He is an amazing, brilliant savant, almost," Terry Shovlin, a painting teacher at the George Washington Carver Center for the Arts, said of Dylan, who was diagnosed with mild
and speech and language difficulties as a young child.
His most recent work includes light-filled human figures made of resin that glow a burnished yellow in darkness. They were created this summer in a flurry of artistic activity that continued even through a week-long power outage. (He worked in the garage by the light of headlights as his father and brother sat in a truck watching movies.)
One of those sculptures, chosen as the grand prize winner of a VSA award, will be on display at the
from Sept. 11 to Jan.13. The awards, given to emerging artists with disabilities, are underwritten by the Volkswagen Group of America and the top award comes with $20,000, which Dylan will use to help pay for college. He was also one of three Baltimore County students to win an award in the
Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics held in Houston this summer.
"From the very beginning his stood out, because of the materials, and aesthetically it was interesting," said Jason Bowman, director of the Fountain Gallery in New York. He helped judge the VSA competition, which is named for an organization on arts and disability.
The winning piece, called "Holding His Own," is a series of identical small fiberglass resin figures. One figure leans his head against a long line of other figures.
Bowman said that once the judges read the essay Dylan had written about the work, they were even more impressed. The essay was "in essence the duality of feeling that the world was against him, but that he is holding other people up," Bowman said.
Last year Dylan's work was chosen for a College Board poster advertising Advanced Placement tests, and this year a piece called "Rebirth" was among about a half-dozen pieces produced by graduating seniors that Carver has purchased.
Dylan didn't speak until he was 4 years old. At Fort Garrison Elementary School, where he was sent after he had problems understanding a teacher at his neighborhood school, his teacher saw a glimmer of artistic talent.
"I took her very seriously because I was struggling with ways to build confidence," said mother Pamela Guest. "After that he was getting a lot of attention. I could see his confidence building."
Dylan said his friends called him an "art nerd."
He wanted to go to Sudbrook Middle School, a magnet for art students, but didn't put together a good portfolio and didn't get in. So he went to
Middle, where, he said, "I was stuck in special ed classes that I was over-excelling in."
During middle school, though, he was transferred into a number of mainstream classrooms. His eighth-grade art teacher pressed him to do the work needed to get into Carver, and he was chosen.
His Carver teachers say the reserved, scared boy who showed up on their door in ninth grade took a while to gain some confidence.
After being bullied through middle school, Dylan said, he had finally found a place where he could be happy. "I was surrounded by kids who loved art so I fit in more."
He began to come out of his shell, his mother said. However, there were still struggles academically, and she had to help him organize his work each night.
He also wasn't used to talking in class, particularly in a class like Joe Giordano's. The visual arts teacher's three-hour class included an hour and a half of discussion for the 21 students. While it wasn't apparent at first, Giordano said, Dylan loves criticism and became comfortable with the discussions.
"He is a natural artist and he is natural painter," Giordano said. "I think once he decides he is going to do it, he will go into territory in art [where] a lot of others wouldn't go. He is willing to take risks to express himself."
Other teachers agreed he has grown as an artist in part because he has an innocent approach that allows him to launch a project without thinking about the amount of work or difficulty ahead.
"I think he is willing to experiment in a way that many people at that stage aren't. He is able to make some discoveries that way. ... His ability to process visually and aesthetically is astounding, way beyond most people his age," said Joseph Cypressi, who taught him sculpture for four years.
By senior year, Dylan was taking the lead in experimentation and decided to begin improvisational paintings, large canvases that he painted while an event was going on. It was the first time that a Carver student had experimented this way, and he would produce an entire painting in just three hours.
One painting, of dancers on the Carver stage, hangs in his living room, along with dozens of other works.
His teachers said Dylan's obsessive-compulsive disorder actually helps him because it means he is deeply concerned about the details of his art and is willing to spend a lot of time on it.
"We have kids ... [who] come to own it as a positive thing," said Shovlin. "It is getting to know who you are and using the tools that you have to motivate you."
Art, Dylan said, is his purpose in life. "It means the world. It is the only thing I am special at. I can't stop thinking about art. I love talking about it. It is addictive," he said.
Many art students will move on to other careers, Giordano said, but Dylan is in it for the long run.
"It is a necessity for him and he understands that."