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Emma Novak and her teacher, Jackie Wargo, hold Emma’s 
elephant art project. 

(Photos by Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)

Using more than 5,400 brads and nearly 1,800 yards of thread, Emma Novak brought her creativity to life, winning the top prize at the Illinois High School Art Exhibition in March for her drawing of an elephant.

Emma, the daughter of Margaret and John Novak of Homewood, is just a sophomore, but her technique so impressed the judges that many said the picture was on par with work expected of a graduate art student, said her teacher, Jackie Wargo.

Emma found a photo of an elephant that she thought would work well for a project in her Drawing and Painting I class at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.

As a freshman, she’d won the top prize for a drawing of macaroons submitted in a high school competition hosted by the South Shore Arts Gallery in Munster, Ind.

Emma brought the macaroons to paper using an art form known as stippling that allowed her to create solids and shading through small dots, rather than brush strokes. Wargo encouraged Emma to take that design technique a step further using nails and threads.

Taking the elephant photo, Emma set out on what became quite a challenge.

“Conceptually, I had to figure it out on my own,” Emma explains. She made a grid over the photo, and then drew that picture block by block onto a board. Each grid she transferred measured 6-inches by 9-inches.

Then she started putting the ¾-inch brads, a thin gauge nail used for lightweight trim work, onto the board. Most are in straight lines, but areas such as the elephant’s eye required more nails, some separated by no more than 1/8-inch. The darker the shading, the more nails.

Everything was done by hand; no special tools were used. Emma wrapped the thread around the brad. She used short pieces of thread to avoid tangles. She knotted the threads and glued the ends to the board or other threads to hold them in place.

To get the elephant’s hide dark enough, Emma took a thick thread normally used for coats, and wrapped it around the brad as many times as she could. The tips of her fingers hurt after a time, but she kept going. She wanted the piece ready for consideration for the state competition.

During 90-minute class periods Emma worked on the picture. She’d use 15 minutes of her lunch period and would be back in the studio after school to continue winding the threads layer upon layer.

Wargo said the technique Emma used “was mesmerizing to the other kids, and it inspired and motivated them.”

Wargo remembers having “a very good feeling” about the elephant piece when she submitted it for competition against 99 other outstanding high school art works. The work was a stunner.

“She is such a perfectionist. I can’t even imagine when she’s in advanced placement,” Wargo says of her student.

Emma’s elephant has now been entered for judging at the 2016 South Shore Arts competition. When the show ends in May, the piece will come home with her.

“I really don’t think I could sell it,” she said.


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