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Addison Conley, center, a 16-year-old junior at Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences won the Best of Show award at the 10th Annual Chattanooga Youth Gallery. Conley is flanked by CSAS art teacher Eric Keller, left, and Hamilton County School Superintendent Bryan Johnson, right. / Contributed Photo by Candy Johnson

Addison Conley, 16, said she had never won anything in her life until last week.

Then, on Friday, one of her artworks was tapped "Best in Show" in the city's biggest student art contest. It's called the Chattanooga Youth Gallery and it's sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Credit Union.

Student work from more than 20 area public and private high schools was featured in the juried art exhibition that was on display last weekend at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on M.L. King Boulevard. More than 125 artworks were featured.

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Mark Kennedy

"It was really cool to be up there on stage with a bunch of people who had really amazing art," said Conley, a junior at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

Conley won the top prize for a mixed-media piece made from scraps of newsprint. The artwork was a riff on the missing-children-on-milk-cartoon campaigns of the 1980s.

For those too young to remember, the milk carton messages were the low-tech equivalent of today's Amber Alerts. The photos of missing children were printed on the sides of milk cartoons to create leads on their whereabouts.

Conley used the allusion for political commentary. The caption on her artwork of a milk carton said, "Missing: Competent Leadership," — which she said is a reference to presidential tweets, which she believes are not always carefully fact-checked.

"You get people who are being influenced by things that may not even be true," she said. "I thought that was something I needed to draw attention to."

Judges were impressed by her generation-spanning theme and clear message.

Her next work will be a graffiti-artist inspired piece advocating the separation of church and state, she said.

Conley, a soft-spoken teen who wants to be a dentist, said she realizes it's somewhat risky to express a political opinion publicly in today's polarized environment. She said her intent is simply to make people think about important issues.

"It's good to get people thinking, even if they disagree with me," she said.

Conley thinks she gets her affinity for political commentary from a grandfather who used to cut out newspaper editorial cartoons and display them on the refrigerator.

"When I was little, I'd look at them but I didn't really understand what they meant," she said. "As I got older, he would explain them."

Eric Keller, Conley's art teacher at CSAS, said her work was top-notch because of her craftsmanship and attention to detail.

"I'm knocked out by her willingness to go above and beyond what's required," Keller said. "The entry in the Youth Gallery that got best in show was something that she took home and spent many hours on outside of class."

Conley explained, "I went through and cut out every piece of white newspaper I could find, which is really hard. When you think about newspapers you think — 'there's a lot of white [space]' — well, no."

Conley said she had been taking art classes since she was in kindergarten at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts. Later, in middle school, she recalls painting a starscape that freed her to think about creating original artwork, not just drawing assigned images.

Even though she has studied arts continuously, tight budgets are always part of the public school art scene, she said. Even now at CSAS, young artists have had to forego encasing some of their larger artworks in resin because the supply budget for the year has run out, she said.

"At CSLA we had the same paint brushes the whole time I was there," she said. "By the time we were in eighth grade, they didn't even have bristles any more."

To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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