While a student at North East School of the Arts at LEE High School, 18-year-old San Antonian Piper Bangs won the Best-in-Show award for a painting she entered into the nationwide ArtEffect Project art competition.

Announced May 28, the award includes a $3,000 unrestricted cash prize and inclusion of Bangs’ painting in the collection of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kansas, an education advocacy center that sponsors the annual competition for high school and middle school students.

Bangs’ award-winning painting depicts pioneering Russian mathematician Sofya Kovalevskaya in a classic style of portraiture, standing at a chalkboard showing complex calculus equations.

In 19th century Russia, women were not accepted in scientific academies, so Kovalevskaya emigrated with her family to Vienna and Germany where she excelled, becoming the first woman in Northern Europe to earn a doctorate and a university professorship.

Kovalevskaya, though highly regarded by scholars, is exactly the type of unsung hero the Milken Center encourages students to research and portray, said Director Norm Conard, a longtime teacher.

Of the historical figures students choose to portray, including young civil rights advocate Sylvia Mendez, anti-segregationist Claudette Colvin, and others, Conard said, “It’s so inspirational to see these wonderful men and women and people of diversity who have helped change the world.”

Looking to attend college after high school, Bangs researched art scholarships online and found the ArtEffect competition. She chose Kovalevskaya from among a list of recommend figures to portray, for being a “trailblazer for the visibility of women in scientific fields,” Bangs said in an announcement.

A stipulation in the ArtEffect application requires sharing information on unsung heroes in public settings. To honor the requirement during the pandemic shutdown, Bangs created a website featuring information on her subject, which positively influenced the judges, Conard said.

For her second-ever painted portrait, Bangs turned to the aristocratic “Grand Manner” painting style to dignify her subject and highlight her accomplishments.

“I have a new appreciation for the opportunities I have available to me because of female leaders like Kovalevskaya, who fought for their rights and triumphed against prejudice, destigmatizing education for women,” Bangs said.

When she first tried oil painting years ago, the art form held little appeal. “I actually used to really dislike painting,” Bangs said, laughing.

A 2016 summer oil painting workshop changed her mind, as she finally learned how to use various mediums involved in painting. Bangs then attended the school’s Teen Studio Intensive program run by artist Katie Pell, who helped deepen her commitment to painting and inspired her to pursue a course of study in high school and beyond.

“She was wonderful. She was like an art mom,” Bangs said of Pell. “She was so nurturing, and she encouraged me to experiment with different media, and also allowed me to go off and do my own thing when I really learned that I loved oil painting.”

Bangs will attend the Laguna College of Art and Design in Southern California in the fall as a drawing and painting major, using the award funds for tuition.

The Kovalevskaya painting will be shipped to the Milken Center to be displayed with other works in the collection, including the centerpiece exhibition on Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse renowned for saving the lives of 2,500 Jewish children in Warsaw during World War II.

Conard’s work in 1999 with students researching the formerly unsung hero Sendler is what inspired the creation of the Milken Center in 2007, and eventually the ArtEffect Project in 2016. Over five years, the competition has awarded more than $75,000 to 27 students.

Asked what effect Bangs hopes her art will have, she mentioned being inspired by socially-conscious contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall, and said art is a good way “to show stories of people who haven’t had their stories told throughout history.”

Bangs was recently invited by friend and former classmate Clarissa Longoria to contribute artwork to an effort to raise funds for the San Antonio Food Bank. The artwork will soon be available on Instagram, Bangs said.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...