Arabella Marshall says the high standard of the art portfolios at the annual NZQA Top Art Exhibition is "kind of insane".
So it was a very pleasant surprise indeed when the Taupō 18-year-old received a letter recently informing her that her NCEA Level 3 painting portfolio was one of just 12 or so painting portfolios of the hundreds of Level 3 painting portfolios submitted in 2020 to be selected for the NZQA Top Art Exhibition.
The idea of the exhibition is to display the top 60 or portfolios from across the various art disciplines from the previous year's level 3 NCEA submissions, to give that year's students an example of what Excellence-standard portfolios look like. As well as the painting portfolios there will be photography, sculpture, design and moving image portfolios and the exhibition will spend the year touring high schools. Only the very best portfolios are chosen.
"They go around the country, all 60 portfolios. There's a South Island exhibition and a North Island exhibition and schools all go and look at them for, I guess, inspiration," says Arabella.
"They're usually the ones that have done something a bit different, they're pushing the boundaries a little bit of what an Excellence would be."
Arabella received an Excellence grade for her Level 3 NCEA painting portfolio and a Level 3 NCEA Excellence endorsement overall. She also passed Scholarship painting and Scholarship English, one of only 2148 students in New Zealand to pass two Scholarship subjects.
Arabella used to view the NZQA Top Art Exhibition at its annual visit to her previous school, Tauhara College, and last year, when she moved to Napier Girls' High School to spend her year 13 focusing on her academic results, she saw the Top Art Exhibition in Hawke's Bay.
"Last year I actually got some ideas for my own folio so it's quite handy to go and look at them."
However she says it's not something she thought about her own portfolio being selected for.
"The standard is always kind of insane and I know that mine isn't really similar to the ones that I'd been looking at that got into the Top Art Exhibition.
"I couldn't replicate what I'd been seeing because it was such a high standard, but it wasn't my style. So it was a happy surprise to get the letter in the mail."
The idea is for the students to develop a theme for their painting portfolio throughout the year, and Arabella's was about people's relationships with their homes becoming deconstructed due to climate change.
"That's what it came to at the end of the portfolio but I didn't really know where it was leading at the beginning. I had my theme which was about home and my identity in relation to my home but I didn't have an image of what it would be like at the end. You just kind of stressfully feel your way through."
She says she began the process by working in layers and coming up with sketches which evolved as the process went on, with the final images often completely different to her original sketches.
"I started ripping up the architectural plans for our house and burning them and sticking them underneath and I wanted to start the year collaging and deconstructing images... I work a lot in layers, starting with gesso and then add each of the backgrounds."
Arabella found it helpful studying for Scholarship painting in parallel because part of the Scholarship assessment was to produce a workbook documenting her thought processes as she developed her NCEA portfolio.
Arabella says tackling both Level 3 and Scholarship made for a full-on year which became quite stressful at the end, trying to do get everything done as well as studying for her external exams.
"I think it was a good challenge for me and with painting it was an enjoyable struggle I guess. It's like you're finding things out about yourself and your research and it was learning that I was actually enjoying, rather than studying for a physics exam, which I had no interest in whatsoever."
During lockdown Arabella moved back home and kept working on her schoolwork and her painting with the support of her mother, Tauhara College art teacher Penny Wilson.
"Especially over lockdown it was good to have her there and I kind of called her a lot when I was at school to just talk over my folio. It takes a lot of discussion to grapple with the ideas that you're trying to present.
"A lot of people think painting might not be an academic subject but it does your head in trying to produce something that's not just a pretty picture, something that isn't just trite."
Arabella, who has just left Taupō to begin a five-year architecture degree at Victoria University of Wellington, is not sure how much time she will have to devote to art this year but says she is taking her paints to university and is hoping to find some time to use them.
"I think it's good to keep up that creative outlet. With architecture, you need to have that kind of connection."
She also hopes to be able to get along to the NZQA Top Art Exhibition and see her portfolio, and the others on display.
"I think the Top Art Exhibition opening is in Wellington and I'm really interested to go and see all the other kids' work."
¦You can follow the progress of the NZQA Top Art Exhibition on Facebook @NZQATopArt.