Every time Esmeralda Sebastian Benitez looks down, she sees the colors of the rainbow.
That’s probably because the North High School student uses her knees as a palette for her paints.
“My parents complain that I always have dried paint stuck on my clothes and in my hair,” Esmeralda said, showing off paint splashed on the exposed parts of holey jeans. “Guess I’m getting it on my skin as well.”
Esmeralda doesn’t seem to mind. After all, a mosaic that she made was good enough to take home second place for the Martin Luther King Jr. Art Contest, sponsored by the Sioux City Community School District and coordinated by fine arts and community outreach program coordinator Pat Toben.
Esmeralda and eight other winners will be recognized at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) annual Freedom Fund Banquet, to be held Feb. 15 in Sioux City.
While Esmeralda finished second in the high school art category, her classmate Casandra Tounjian had art that got the top spot.
“My art shows a little girl surrounded by the quotes of Martin Luther King Jr.” Casandra, a North 11th-grader, said. “The flower the girl is holding, represents her bright future.”
Teacher Sarah Pautsch said her students have participated in the art contest, dedicated to the slain civil rights leader, for many years.
“The kids like it because it represents a challenge,” she said. “Judges aren’t interested in a poster with Martin Luther King Jr.’s face on it. You have to dig deeper. You have to show more of your personality.”
That wasn’t easy for Youla Tricia Onayan, a North 10th-grader whose art earned her a third place finish.
A native of the Philippines, Youla only knew about MLK from what she read in textbooks.
“There is really only one race in the Philippines and that’s Asian,” she said. “America is much more of a melting pot.”
This is why Youla’s art showcased a white face, an Asian face and an African-American face, surrounded by the words “live in harmony for we are all related.”
In addition to high schoolers, the art contest also awarded elementary and middle school artists.
Jaci Bowder, of Spalding Park, received a first place finish in the elementary school category, while Mina Philavanh, of Unity, and Kaitlynn Miller, of Spalding Park, took home second and third place honors, respectively.
West Middle School dominated the middle school category. Moises Alferez Cruz and Angie Amaya Hildalgo were selected second and third place finishers, while classmate Mya Comstock, a West Middle sixth-grader, received top honors.
“My mom freaked out when she found out I came in first place,” Mya said, describing her art as representing hands of different colors surrounded by one red heart.
In a family where she is one of seven siblings, Mya uses her art as a creative outlet. However, she wants to pursue a career in medicine when she grows up.
It is something she shares in common with Youla, who wants to study nursing in college.
Like Youla, Casandra loves science as well as art. In fact, she’d like to teach high school science.
Esmeralda, on the other hand, is adamant about following her artistic aspirations.
“I want to study art in Sweden, spend time in Italy and see as much of the rest of the world that I can,” she said.
Art by Mya Comstock. Mya received first place for the West Middle sixth-grader MLK art competition. Photo by Earl Horlyk, Sioux City Journal.