Since the age of 4, Joshua Washington, a freshman at Pasadena Memorial High School, has created art with colored pencils, watercolors, and oil paints. And while Washington certainly isn’t the only kid out there who has picked up a drawing pad, he has achieved something that most artistic kids could only dream of: His recent sketch Trailblazin’ won the Class Champion award in the colored drawing category of the Student Art Contest at the 2023 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is currently going on until March 19. This Sunday, Washington’s artwork along with 71 other student pieces go to auction.
Budding young artists have competed in the rodeo’s annual School Art Contest since the 1960s. What started as a small competition with hundreds of entries now attracts thousands of submissions from some 100 public and private school districts within 125 miles of Houston. From the submitted entries, a group of around 30 professional artists judge the elementary, junior high, and high school entries. Through an annual auction, the program raises money for the rodeo’s Educational Fund, which is used for scholarship and grant recipients. At the first auction in 1996, a total of $254,600 was raised; last year, the auction brought in an astonishing $2,254,307.
Many of the award-winning pieces attest to a level of skill and experience well beyond the students’ years. Washington’s drawing is so detailed that it looks like a photograph, highlighting exquisite features of a young blond woman in a straw hat riding a chestnut horse in an open plain. Per the guidelines of the School Art Contest, participants must source their inspiration from a set of approved photographs to create the composition for their original art.
A photograph of a young barrel racer and her horse from those approved materials caught Washington’s eye and inspired what became Trailblazin’.
“What I liked about that photo was the expression on her face, the position she was in, the attitude of it, but especially the relationship she seemed to have with the horse,” he says. “They just looked like a team.”
Washington is among a group of students whose work has been featured in the auction before. He is also one of the rare students whose work made the auction when he was a junior high student. His award-winning piece last year, Preparation, was a detailed black-and-white monochromatic drawing that sold for $25,000 at auction.
Mia Huckman, a senior at Foster High School in Richmond, is also a part of that group of students whose art has been auctioned at the rodeo more than once. In fact, Huckman’s Reserve Grand Champion piece from last year, Partners in Time, brought in an astonishing $265,000 at auction—a record for the event. Huckman got to keep $19,000 of those funds, with the rest of the money going into the Rodeo’s Educational Fund.
Huckman’s latest piece, Our Last Roundup, was named the 2023 Grand Champion, which is especially meaningful for the young artist because in the four years her high school artwork has made it to auction, she has placed higher each time.
“I didn’t want to be disappointed if I broke that trend in my last year,” she tells Texas Highways. “I knew that I would most likely fall short of my expectations given that the bar was so high, but I’m so glad I pushed through and ended up successful. I was also feeling a lot of pressure to live up to others’ expectations, as teachers and students at my school both know me for my art and my record.”
One look at Our Last Roundup reveals why Huckman won this year: from the horse’s matted, tangled mane and the aging cowboy’s weathered hands to the claustrophobic herding of cows amid kicked-up dust, the attention to detail makes a viewer feel like they’re in the thick of the roundup.
When Huckman was 8 years old, her parents enrolled her in art classes where she was taught the more technical aspects of art. She excels in Western art, but also enjoys creating other types: “I love making portraits specifically because of the personal connections it can help you make with people, and I love drawing architecture because I think that there’s a lot of beauty to be seen in it, as well as for the fact that the understanding of perspective and detail required for drawing it well makes it something that not everyone is willing to attempt.”
With the money she has earned over her years at auction, Huckman is confident she can pursue a career in the arts, specifically as a concept artist. At this year’s auction, Huckman is guaranteed $28,000 as Grand Champion, and up to $38,000 if the auction goes extremely well.
Cheryl Deitcher was a part of the group who purchased Huckman’s reserve piece last year for $265,000. Deitcher and her husband, Gary, have been involved in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo as lifetime members for years (she serves on the school art auction committee) and have purchased school art at the auction for the past 20 years. Deitcher estimates they have purchased the reserve or grand champion-winning pieces about seven times, spending an estimated $800,000 over their bidding history.
For Deitcher, purchasing these student works isn’t so much about owning beautiful pieces of art to display in her home or donate back to the rodeo, but instead about investing in the talent and potential that is apparent in these maturing artists through educational opportunities. With all they’ve purchased at rodeo auctions, including livestock auctions, through the years, Deitcher and her husband have created tremendous opportunities. ”We’ve been able to fund over 60 scholarships for students. That’s the primary reason we do it,” she says.
One medium Deitcher has seen improve over the years in student art is in the sculpture category. The patron believes this evolution is due in large part to the students having the opportunity to attend the Western Art Academy in Kerrville over the summer for an immersive four-week program that teaches topics in oil painting, drawing, and sculpting. The academy is held at Schreiner University in collaboration with the Museum of Western Art.
High school students who participate in the Student Art Contest and place Best of Show, Gold Medal, Special Merit, or Finalist are able to apply to attend this grant-sponsored program. There is also an opportunity for K-12 student artists who place Best of Show, Gold, or Special Merit to apply for programs at Houston’s revered Glassell School of Art.
Alicia Smith, chairman of the School Art Committee at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, says she, too, has seen an evolution in student art over the years, particularly in style and creativity. While in the past, students stuck with more classic Western themes like landscapes, cowboys, and livestock, Smith says she’s seen more experimentation, especially in award-winning pieces that go to auction.
“I remember in the beginning it was a lot of horse heads, a guy standing in a pasture, a close-up of a cow head. Roosters. Things like that, and we still get those,” she says, “but what I have seen more in the last 10 years is action pieces and perspective pieces, like doing something from down below or up above. We’ve gotten some really great abstract pieces, too.”
As a former Houston Independent School District elementary school art teacher, Smith appreciates that the Houston Livestock and Rodeo has recognized for many years that talent and potential is found beyond traditional rodeo activities, such as showing livestock, especially in a city as diverse and urban as Houston has become.
“This program was started to give these artistic, creative kids an opportunity to participate in the rodeo that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” she says. “That’s how it started, but if you look at where it is today, it’s grown into this huge talent bank that keeps growing.”