MOUNT VERNON — Dana Schuldt wanted her Mount Vernon High School art students to find their passion.

Free to find inspiration without pressure, those students entered pieces in all 12 categories in the South Dakota High School Activities Association visual arts sweepstakes, placing in the top-three in nine categories, winning five and capturing the Class B state championship on March 20 in Sioux Falls.

Schuldt approached certain students about entering a particular category, but left it to them to choose their creations. Many of the students discovered their passion, even diving into projects with outside materials or outside Schuldt’s expertise.

“I want you to get excited about something you like and I don’t want to tell you that you have to draw this,” said Schuldt, who is in her seventh year at Mount Vernon. “That’s with all of my students in my program, but especially for state. I want them to dive into something they have passion for, that they can relate to, that they have a drive for.”

Senior Kaitlyn Sandland was asked to enter the traditional culture art category by Schuldt three years ago and she decided to learn Native American beading. Sandland is not of American Indian descent, but as an avid rodeo participant, she saw beaded belts making a comeback and desperately wanted one.

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Sandland wanted to create her own belt, especially since prices were much too high. Embarking on her project, Sandland wanted to incorporate South Dakotan history, adding colors and logos representing Sioux tribes.

It took between 24-48 hours to complete the beading, prior to sewing the ends to ensure the beads would not move and then sent it to Hurricane Dixie Leather in Pawnee, Oklahoma, where the beading was stitched to leather, creating a wide-hip belt.

“I knew it was going to be cool and when I sent it to Hurricane Dixie, I told her, ‘Here’s my belt, this is what it’s for, make it something cool,’” Sandland said. “She came back with a lot of questions and I said all I wanted was a wide-hip belt and I want to let your creativity run with it because that’s what I did with my beadwork.”

The belt was completed a year ago, but Sandland was not able to enter it into the state visual arts sweepstakes after the SDHSAA decided not to judge any submissions due to COVID-19. Sandland set it to a variety of shows afterward, picking up awards along the way and Schuldt convinced her to enter it for state once again, winning first place.

Since finishing the original belt, Sandland beaded a Western-style belt for her father and another belt for a family friend. She also did all the beading and leatherwork on a jacket that was sent to a competition at the Granary Rural Cultural Center in Aberdeen.

Sandland has taken to beading so much so that she has decided to turn it into a career. She will take small business courses at Mitchell Tech — along with radiology tech courses — with a dream of making a living on beading and leatherwork.

“When I started out, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it,” Sandland said, “and I have turned out to love it.”

Finding different inspirations

Sandland’s first-place finish was joined by schoolmates Emily Maltsberger (crafts), Kaleb Hawk (mixed media), Myles Nicholson (multimedia/graphic design) and Lily Mikkonen (photography).

Mikkonen was also the runner-up in oil and acrylic painting. But unlike Sandland, Mikkonen knew she was going to enjoy her projects and found easy inspiration — her friends.

She started taking photos while participating in 4-H and the hobby stuck. Perusing Pinterest, Mikkonen found an idea and used a friend to create a personal touch. A long exposure shot and a slow shutter speed on the camera created a nifty background and added LED lights, which Mikkonen felt looked like a funhouse.

The senior also used a friend to model for her oil painting, which developed into Mikkonen’s vision when she sketched it out on paper.

“I love my friends and I love to include them in my art,” Mikkonen said. “I just like to include my friends in things. I don’t like them to feel left out. … It’s just easier to have a model and what better model to use than your friends?”

While Sandland desires to turn her passion into a career, Mikkonen has other plans after graduation. Art is pure for Mikkonen, a release and a hobby that brings joy. She does not want to inject the pressure of a career into art, so instead she will head to South Dakota State University in hopes of becoming a licensed therapist in the future.

“I did plan on taking an art class in college, but for my future career, I didn’t plan on doing anything with art,” Mikkonen said. “It’s more of just a hobby and I’ve had plenty of people ask me, ‘Why don’t you do anything with art or why don’t you do anything with music?’ I like it and I don’t want to turn it into something I wouldn’t like as a job.”

Of the eight award winners, six will return next year with an opportunity to defend their state championship and many have found passions similar to Sandland and Mikkonen. Nicholson has enjoyed graphic design for several years and is planning to attend college for graphic design in the future. Meanwhile, Maltsberger earned her championship in crafts with embroidery, a learned skill passed from her grandmother.

“I have no idea how to do embroidery, but she was willing to put the effort and time into that,” Schuldt said. “It was something she knew how to do and she enjoyed doing. It was kind of a generational thing. Most people don’t do embroidery or sewing anymore. It’s kind of a lost art.”

Winning a state championship adds validity to Schuldt’s teaching style and she will continue to push students to take risks and find ideas to pour passion into their projects in the future.

“It’s a passion and that’s how I like to run our program,” Schuldt said. “I want them to be passionate, I want them to explore, I want them to step out of the box and I want them to think outside the box. It’s OK to make a mistake and we learn from mistakes, especially in art. You’ve got to make mistakes, because that’s how you learn.”

Other local award winners include Bridgewater-Emery’s Josie Herrick (Class B champion in functional ceramics) and Mara Zorr (Class B third place for drawing and third in colored drawing), Chamberlain’s Paige Endres (Class A third-place for crafts), Aurora Wright (Class A champion in mixed media and third-place for drawing) and Sophie Connelly (runner-up in multimedia/graphic design), Howard’s Samantha Winker (Class B runner-up in colored drawing and third in watercolor) and Daisy Keller (runner-up in photography), Mitchell’s Laney Titze (Class AA runner-up in photography) and Wessington Springs’ Kenzee Schafer (Class B champion in colored drawing and third in mixed media), Rydell Krueger (champion in oil and acrylic painting and third in three-dimensional) and Angie Paulson (runner-up in drawing and traditional culture art).

Mount Vernon state visual art award winners

First place: Emily Maltsberger (Crafts)

First place: Kaitlyn Sandland (Cultural art)

First place: Kaleb Hawk (Mixed media)

First place: Myles Nicholson (Multimedia/Graphic design)

First place: Lily Mikkonen (Photography)

Second place: Lily Mikkonen (Oil and acrylic painting)

Second place: Logan Tlam (Watercolor painting)

Second place: Lily Casillas (Print making)

Third place: Naomi Kitto (Three-dimensional)