East Lyme senior uses art to change the way others see her, and how she sees herself
East Lyme ― High school senior Tessa Page spent most of her childhood ― most of her life, really ―believing there was nothing important or special about her.
“It’s blunt and it’s harsh, but I believed that I was stupid,” she said. “I really did, for a long time.”
Last year, Page won the coveted Jeffrey Dobbs Scholarship for Excellence in Painting from the Shoreline Art Alliance, with its $1,000 prize. She had only been painting for around a year at that point, after the death of her grandmother led her to a place of reflection in her basement. That’s where she began working hour after hour on murals and self portraits.
She described her earliest paintings as an experiment designed to show people how she saw herself, as opposed to how society saw her.
It’s the contemplative “I Couldn’t Explain It if I Tried” that won the painting prize. She painted herself in black and white beneath vivid swirls of orange, blue and green. The mass of color overhead represented what it was like living with an overactive imagination and undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Page recounted elementary and middle school years filled with doubt: Why couldn’t she make friends like other students could? Why couldn’t she talk with her teachers as easily as the rest of the kids? It was an inner monologue fed by the triple threat of ADHD, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, though she didn’t know it at the time.
“The three of them kind of ruled my life when I was younger,” she said. She was diagnosed early in high school.
It wasn’t until the COVID pandemic hit, forcing the lonely student into communal isolation, that she picked up art for good. She took multiple two-dimensional art classes in the hybrid year that had students split between home and school. She said the schedule gave her a lot of time to work on art pieces at home and to get “into the groove” of consistently producing.
That’s when she discovered the paintbrush was the best way to get her point across.
“The past couple of years has been me learning that I’m not stupid,” she said. “I just have a very different way of communicating and showing that to other people.”
Teacher Freda Gianakos said she first met Page in her class on interior and fashion design. She described the student’s first sketches as incredible.
“I said, ‘You're obviously an artist,’” Gianakos recalled. “And she smiled and nodded.”
Gianakos engaged Page in “small informal” conversations that grew into big ones. Then the student who for so long hadn’t known how to communicate with teachers was visiting her classroom more and more to talk.
Now, Gianakos is teaching Page how to sew through an independent study.
“She considered sewing just another art, and I agreed with her,” Gianakos said.
Page said she sees fashion as another way to connect with people. If they like something she’s wearing, she can tell them she made it.
It’s a subtle shift for the kid who’s worked backstage in Drama Club since fifth grade because she wants to be “a part of something without being the center of everything.”
Page plans to attend the University of Hartford on a partial scholarship with the goal of getting into set production for stage and screen.
Art teacher Rachel Michaud, who has taught Page throughout high school, described her student’s artwork in terms of connections.
“Her artwork is very personal,” Michaud said. “When she makes art, she’s making a connection all the time. There’s a reason. There’s a purpose.”
Michaud said Page has come a long way as a person and an artist in the time they’ve known each other.
“I’m so proud she’s made a name for herself,” she said. “Everyone knows Tessa, and they know her work. They can definitely pick it out.”
Behind the scenes
Newfound recognition for her art and appreciation for the 10-hour workdays she put in as the stage manager for Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” have helped the behind-the-scenes kid realize it feels good to be seen.
Friday morning, Page got word she won the Jeffrey Dobbs Scholarship for Excellence in Painting for the second year in a row. Her winning portfolio has evolved from self-portraits into portraits of friends.
She painted her friend Marielle against an abstract background of soft brush strokes, circles, and strawberry Pocky sticks. She painted her friend Patrick on glass beneath exclamation points, lightning strikes and musical notes because he reminds her of a comic book character.
“I’ve never been able to really describe how I see people very well, but I’ve always had very strong images in my head, like specific colors, shapes, patterns, specific art styles and mediums that I associate those with different people and their personality,” she said.
It’s an evolution in communication and connection for the introspective graduate who said she started out not thinking much of herself.
“I have changed the way I see myself now, a lot,” she said.
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