PHOTO: Owczarzak worked hard to incorporate meaning into his self-portrait. “All the stuff around [the head] is supposed to represent the thought, like the crazy chaoticness of all that,” Owczarzak said.
By Dahlia Kraus,
After a journey of exercising his creativity, exploring his identity and developing his art techniques, Davis High junior Ilon Owczarzak’s self-portrait won the Crocker Art Museum’s High School Self-Portrait Show. The annual exhibition “gives the very best high school artists a chance to display their art for the Sacramento community,” according to the website description.
Natalie Nelson, the director and curator of the Pence Gallery in Davis who selects the winners, was captivated by Owzarzak’s self-portrait. “It’s the kind of portrait that makes you want to meet the person portrayed,” Nelson said.
Owczarzak’s parents always encouraged him to follow his passion for art, unsurprising for a mom who fuses glass and a dad who builds pottery. “I grew up in a creative household,” Owczarzak said.
In seventh grade Owczarzak moved from Oakland to Davis, bringing with him a variety of artistic skills. In tenth grade he entered high school, with AP Drawing and Painting becoming his favorite class. At the AP art level, students create works based on a sustained investigation, or theme that connects all their works; Owczarzak chose gender identity.
“It was my first year being out as transgender, especially in high school,” Owczarzak said. “I was having a lot of feelings… and art is a therapy in a way. It was a way to explore different aspects of [gender identity] and how it was affecting me.”
The summer before high school, Owczarzak had come out as transgender to his mom, therapist and close friends, after thinking about it for a year or two. Then with a fresh start at a new school, Owczarzak told people his correct identifiable name and pronouns as he publicly came out as trasngender.
“Being trans in high school is really hard,” he said with a laugh. “And coming out to a bunch of people, it’s stressful. On a day to day basis people misgender me […] You’re constantly doing this dance of, ‘can I correct this person? Are they going to react violently or weirdly? Is it going to be really awkward?’”
Owczarzak’s gender identity journey continues today. “You come out every time you meet someone who misgenders you, so it doesn’t really stop,” Owczarzak said. Art helped Owczarzak think deeply about his gender identity and make his feelings clearer.
Now it is Owczarzak’s second year taking AP Drawing and Painting. Owczarzak’s new sustained investigation is pain, because a year ago he was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. According to Mayo Clinic, “fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that the condition amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.”
“It’s difficult,” Owczarzak said. “You have to manage every aspect of your life [and] identify the triggers.” Triggers for Owczarzak include overexerting himself and not managing stress, which can cause pain flares, an increase in his symptoms such as fatigue and migraines. “It’s like all your muscles are kind of screaming at you, you can’t think.”
Last year, Owczarzak had to miss months of school because he could not function under his pain levels, he said. “I function on a normal good day of pain level three […] constant, annoying distracting pain, but not debilitating. Whereas six or seven, I can’t get out of bed, I can’t move, I can’t do anything. I have to lay in the dark silence… I have to just exist in pain for a few days.”
Consequently, Owczarzak switched to Independent Study, which worked better for his schedule, but he is still enrolled in DHS AP Drawing and Painting. He now misses school a few times a month at most.
Art continues to be a way to sort through the pain while expressing creativity. “I’m basically just messing around and exploring. It’s fun,” Owczarzak said. The most recent example of Owczarzak’s self-expression is his self-portrait.
Out of the 45 self-portraits submitted, Owczarzak’s was one of four selected to be displayed in the Crocker Art Museum. The 30 hours that Owczarzak put into the piece were challenging. “Self-portraits are so hard, man. They not only have to look like you, they have to capture the soul of you and I’m like […] I don’t know myself well enough to do that.”
Even though Owczarxak followed his artistic plan, he initially disliked the product because it was too drab. “I decided that I wanted to make it more interesting because I felt like it really didn’t represent me as a person,” Owczarzak said.
Owczarzak added a textured background with blue spray paint and line art doodles with neon paint pens, which incorporated more of his distinct style. “I was trying to put more elements of myself into it, and I think I did. And people really liked it for some reason.”
Nelson admires the style, which she said “combines a more realistic style with a graphic, street art kind of vibe. The lines that pop off and become symbols create a sense of energy to the painting, and point to all sorts of mystical and mythological ideas.”
Owczarzak appreciates having his efforts recognized. “It’s good because I feel like I put so much of myself into that piece [that] it’s not only validation for my work it’s also like, ‘oh, I’m validated,’” Owczarzak said.