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Student artist's big display focuses on a small struggle

Emily Norris won the Best-in-Show Student Award at the Embracing Our Differences 2021 Outdoor Art Exhibit.

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  • | 11:36 a.m. January 26, 2021
Emily Norris worked on her "Small Struggles" art piece for a month.
Emily Norris worked on her "Small Struggles" art piece for a month.
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Emily Norris, an 13-year-old student at Sarasota Middle School, sometimes has trouble with words. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have things to say — the 7th-grade artist has expressed herself through digital art and painting for years. 

She typically puts her energy into all sorts of digital designs — painting faces is a particular favorite — but also recently submitted one of her pieces to the Embracing Our Differences 2021 Outdoor Art Exhibit in the hopes of having it be part of the annual art collection. “Small Struggles” depicts a young Black child looking at a towering wall of white, blonde dolls at a toy store.

While it was initially part of a class assignment, Norris felt she really had something special with the finished product. To her surprise and delight, not only was she accepted as a candidate but Norris won the competition’s Best-In-Show Student Award. 

Her artwork, drawn on a 8.5-by-11 paper, has been blown up to billboard size and displayed at Bayfront Park along with other powerful works as part of Embracing Our Difference’s annual exhibit that opened Jan. 20.

“When I found out, I just got really excited," Norris said.  "I was super happy. I went out and tell my friends immediately and it was just a really great feeling.”

Her mother Arin says Emily has always been creative, with the pair of them sewing and making crafts together when she was young. As Emily became more independent, she started asking for more art supplies, and Arin was happy to oblige. Emily says she was inspired by sketches, nature paintings and magic figures, and wanted to be able to draw the same. 

“(Art) is the best way for me to express my emotions,” Emily said. “It really just helps me calm down and level myself out when needed.”

Norris, who considers herself an artist, says she’s working on things all the time. She had the idea for “Small Struggles” when thinking about how some people of color occasionally need to use different hair products as opposed to others, and how those small differences can make someone feel. 

Emily Norris worked on her
Emily Norris worked on her "Small Struggles" art piece for a month.

“It’s about how the smallest lack of representation can mean something in the long run,” she said. “... I've been to stores and I've seen all the advertisements where it’s  like ‘We look like you!’ and I just see the lack of variation.”

She started out with the project sketching the idea in her notebook, which she then took a picture of and re-created it online. She printed that design and used alcohol markers and gel pens to color it in. All in all, the process took around a month.

While Norris usually makes it a point to draw faces, this time she framed the scene of the Black child facing up at the wall of toys, to better convey a feeling of not being represented in day-to-day life.

(I wanted to) express the feeling of not being able to see someone like yourself,” Norris said. “When everyone around you is advertised to look like you, but it does not.”

The artwork is now on display at Bayfront Park, something that Arin and Emily are still getting used to when they’ve visited the exhibit. Emily says the first time she saw her work up on display that it didn’t feel totally real. 

“They're such good pieces and then just to think that I know her and that she’s just 13 is  absolutely amazing,” Arin Norris said. “I was speechless … I'm gonna go back and see it every day that I possibly can.”



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