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Old Saybrook - For some students, art class is a fun distraction from the daily drudgery of academics, one of the few places they can put away their books and get a little creative.
For Caroline Tagliatela, it's turned into something much more. Beginning in middle school, she realized that painting and drawing came easily to her, and six years later her talent and interest in art have evolved into a true passion.
"I really can't describe why I like painting so much, I'm just drawn to it," the Old Saybrook High School senior said. "My interest just sort of grew on its own."
And that "interest," which may be a bit of an understatement, has led her through one of the most ambitious senior projects in recent years at her school - a giant painting exploring the issues of child labor and exploitation, an ambitious undertaking even by professional standards.
"She's always had a talent for art, there's no question there, but she's shown unbelievable dedication," said Dana Maccio, her AP Art History teacher and head of the art department at the school."There are days where you'd come in and it would look one way, and then the next day she'll have painted over half the canvas and started again."
Additionally, Tagliatela is part of the growing number of students nationwide who have decided to defer their acceptance to college and take a gap year after high school. Although she's been accepted into both the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Pratt Institute, she'll be spending next year traveling, volunteering and working on her portfolio.
"We talked about many different options, but she was pretty set in her mind that she wanted to do something a little nontraditional for her first year out of high school," said Casey Webber, her guidance counselor. "She's just a really creative, independent student."
Tagliatela first started drawing in seventh grade, when she sketched a picture of Audrey Hepburn and it turned out exactly how she envisioned it. She began drawing pictures of famous people to work on her skills, and by sophomore year she was taking classes at the Tracy Arts Center in Old Saybrook. She quickly moved on to private lessons with Carlos Ayala, a 2005 graduate of the Lyme Art Academy and instructor at the Tracy Arts Center. The two still collaborate.
All seniors are required to complete a year-long senior project, a combination of research and hands-on work. Tagliatela chose to do one on child labor and exploitation, reflecting a strong interest in humanitarian work, and opted to do a painting for the hands-on component.
At 6-by-8 feet, it's the biggest that art teacher Al Mortali has seen by a student.
"I think the size got to her a few times, but she kept working through it," said Mortali, her mentor for the project. "It's exciting to see that kind of confidence growing in a young artist."
The unnamed painting, which Mortali calls a "real feat," depicts a room filled with free-flowing shapes and young, anguished faces. A long line of figures sits hunched behind a row of old-fashioned sewing machines. The blue sky at the top is a sharp contrast to the dark colors swirling below.
She doesn't have a favorite artist or style - she believes that the message of a painting is more important than either, an approach that Maccio, her AP art history teacher, said is reflected in her work this year.
"It has pieces and styles of different artists that we've talked about in class, which is really interesting," Maccio said.
She leaves June 24 for a six-week program with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Australia. She's also applied to Brown Ledge Gap Year, a five-month program in the fall that combines traveling and community service with making a documentary.
After that, she's looking at a number of different volunteer and service organizations.
And after that? She's confident she'll find something that can marry her two passions.
"I feel like art gets a bad rap," she said. "There are a lot of careers involving it and lots of things you can do with an art degree."