They are a poet, a singer, two dancers, and a photographer; all teenagers singled out for their extraordinary talent and named Young Arts finalists. Among the many arts and academic competitions for students, Young Arts is unique. Thousands of students across the country apply each year in 10 artistic disciplines including theater, writing, classical music, design arts, film, visual arts and voice to be among the roughly 139 students named finalists.
This year, two students from the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, one student from the Baltimore School for the Arts, and two students from Howard County have been named finalists.
In interviews with the finalists and their parents, they all said the students’ art was an organic part of who they are and how they walk through each day of their lives. Some began pursuing their passions when they were in elementary school — picking up a pen, a camera or a musical instrument as a child and never putting it down.
Each one will be invited to spend a week in Miami in January, all expenses paid. There they will collaborate with their peers and learn from recognized leaders in their artistic disciplines before performing. About 20 will be chosen as Presidential Scholars in the Arts next year and can receive up to $10,000 in cash awards. Here’s a look at four of the Baltimore-area finalists.
After her first dance solo as a child, Cassidy Reigel walked off the stage and told her mother “When I step onstage, I feel like there is a light coming out of my heart.”
Since then, she has passionately danced her way through childhood and adolescence despite one leg being longer than the other, leaving her listing slightly to one side. An infection in the growth plate of her right leg had left it one-and-a-half inches shorter than the other. She danced ballet and jazz and tried choreography at a local dance studio, as well as taking private lessons from a Pennsylvania-based dancer.
By her teens, she decided she wanted to go to the Baltimore School for the Arts, a 45-minute drive from her home in Carroll County. She had almost finished ninth grade when the pandemic hit, but she said she kept practicing during a lockdown that lasted through most of the 2020-2021 school year. BSA dancers learned online, practicing in kitchens, basements and bedrooms. “It was a hard time to keep being determined,” she said.
In June 2020, she underwent a long-planned surgery on her right leg to lengthen it. The surgery corrected the problem, she said.
Although she is the sugar plum fairy in the BSA’s production of “The Nutcracker” and said she has trained rigorously in ballet since age 7, her greatest love is jazz dance. Now a senior, Reigel wants to dance professionally in musical theater or with the Rockettes in New York City. “I like to perform and tell a story when I dance,” she said.
She has applied to universities and colleges with strong dance programs. “I feel BSA has helped me find myself as an artist,” she said. “It has taught me a lot about being a leader in a large group of artists.” The school, she said, has given her the sense of what it is to be held to high professional standards.
Brigette Paffenback didn’t think her 5-year-old daughter Sophia would get anything out of the Mommy and Me classes hosted by Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Children’s Chorus. She wasn’t singing along with the rest of the kids.
“But then I realized she was soaking it all in,” her mom said.
Soon after, young Sophia Paffenback began a nine-year career with the choir. She now attends George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology for vocal music and is writing, singing and performing her own work.
As a recording artist with three songs available for streaming, the 18-year-old goes by Sophia Bryter as a stage name. It was inspired by one of her favorite artists, Nick Drake, who has an album called “Bryter Layter.” Her self-titled band performs her original music as well as cover songs.
“Every year we get a different feel for songs, a different style of songs,” she said. “This year, we’re focusing a lot on rock and blues, but last year it was more like alternative.”
She describes her songwriting as something she fell hard for.
“There’s nothing more understanding than my piano,” she said. “There’s nothing more understanding than the notebook that I write the lyrics in.”
The artist has been writing songs since she was in first grade. The first one was with her dad, who is also a singer-songwriter. It was called “Gentle Breeze.”
“Here I am with you walking in a gentle breeze,” she recited. “I think that was the only lyric. Just repeated over and over again.”
Bill Paffenback, her dad, said he’s sure he had some impact on his daughter’s love of music, “but her talent is otherworldly in comparison.”
Her writing has evolved since then. She likes to focus on the words instead of the musical components.
“I guess I write almost as if the voice and the piano were a puzzle that I was fitting together,” Bryter said.
One of her newer songs is called “Ghost Town.” She wrote it when students were learning virtually at the start of the pandemic. Back then, she was writing a song a day.
“Am I gonna go down with this ghost town, or am I gonna keep the headphones too loud,” the lyrics state.
The Glyndon resident said the song was an ode to loneliness.
Bryter, with aspirations to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston, said she hopes to meet, and learn from, many people at Young Arts.
Britney Simbana-J of Lutherville-Timonium described herself as shy and closed-off as a kid. There weren’t many people she could relate to, but photography was a way she could express herself.
“I think this kind of burst of work is because of how closed-off I was before. I love photography for the fact that most of the time I don’t have to speak and I can express myself through the work that I do.”
Her expression revealed talent. The Carver student has won local and national awards for capturing the people most special to her: her family. And her images earned her a trip to Miami for National YoungArts Week+.
Some of the 18-year-old’s award-winning work includes a photo series called “Your Landscapers.” Her parents own a landscaping business, and she and her siblings often pitch in. Simbana-J wanted to capture them on a working day but only had her iPhone. In a last-minute decision, she submitted the photo in the 2022 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and won a national gold medal for it.
“It’s full of deep thought and deep reflection,” her teacher, Sherry Insley, said of Simbana-J’s work. “And it’s just a beautiful series of portraits about family, about generations, about labor and work.”
In one photo, her family is taking a lunch break. Her dad is leaning on the car, her mom is sitting in front of the passenger seat with her feet hanging out of the door and her brother is directly below, underneath the car with his head poking out.
“And then my parents are talking and there’s this natural … love and communication between them,” she said. “And then I kind of was like, ‘Stop,’ and then made them look at me.”
The images represent her background, her upbringing and having immigrant parents who are working hard for their family, she said.
Her mom, Lourdes Jachero, said she’s proud of the work that her daughter produces and thinks the family is the subject of the photos because of their hard work and culture.
“Most of the time, she saw us very muddy, sweating,” Jachero said. “We always say, ‘We try to do the best [we can] because I don’t want you to be the same. I would like something better [for you].’”
Simbana-J plans to be a first-generation college student and to study photography or art education.
Two students from Howard County were finalists. Naomi Ling, 17, a junior at River Hill High School, is a finalist for writing, and Vaishnavi Nair, who graduated last year from Mt. Hebron High School in Ellicott City, is a finalist for classical Indian dance. Nair was unavailable for this story.
Ling is a poet whose work focuses on her identity as an Asian American girl and how current events are viewed through the eyes of the Asian community. Her parents emigrated from China.
When she saw Asians attacked on the subways after some U.S. politicians blamed China for the coronavirus, she thought of her Chinese grandmother. “Knowing that those victims could be my family was a sore spot,” she said. “I wanted to highlight the trauma of reading the news every day and knowing that it could be one of us.”
Ling began writing as soon as she was able to type on a keyboard. She writes mostly poetry, but she has also dabbled in creative nonfiction and songwriting. She writes:
I tell you I write poetry but I’m only echoing
my mother & her mother’s strife to each line that listens
do we lie only to promise our past selves
The Young Arts Week in Miami will be the first time that she has been in a writing community, Ling said. She hopes that she will be able to delve into discussions about process and writing styles with her fellow Young Arts finalists.
“Poetry is a way to express my thoughts about the world around me,” Ling said.