HEBRON — Yena Kang has lived in three countries on two continents and experienced more from life than many of her peers. But at age 20, she is still young enough that her vision is unfiltered and still unspoiled by the cynicism that comes with age.

Because of that, she believes her artistic output is a pure and direct reflection of her soul.

“I am young,” said Kang, a senior at Hebron Academy who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and lived for many years in western Canada before coming to this small Maine community for her high school studies.

Because of her international education, she is older than most high-school students. But she feels young in every way.

“I haven’t really seen the world,” she said. “I haven’t seen the dirty parts yet. That allows me to have more creativity and not be fake.”

Kang recently won a gold and silver medal at the national competition of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in addition to seven regional Gold Keys, all for her paintings, drawings and prints.

Nationally, the Gold and Silver Medals are among the most prestigious and coveted honors a young artist in America can win. They began in 1923, and among those who won top honors during their high school years were Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote and Robert Redford.

The Gold Keys recognize the highest level of achievement on the regional level. Less than 10 percent of all regional submissions are recognized with Gold Keys; those that are become considered for national-level recognition. A Gold Medal honors the most outstanding work in the nation, and a Silver Medal demonstrates high honors at the national level.

Kang is among four Maine students who won national recognition, and the only one who won gold in the visual arts.

Both of her winning pieces are drawings. The Gold Medal winner is a color drawing, in marker on velum, called “Corner.” It shows a hallway corner cluttered with personal items, including toys, a chair and a cabinet on wheels. The other is a charcoal drawing of crowds in New York City called “People.”

Kang and her work will be recognized during an awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York later this spring. It will also be featured in publications and in an exhibition touring this summer.

Through May 10, Hebron features her work in a solo exhibition at Sturtevant Art Gallery on the Hebron Academy campus. She is the only Hebron Academy student to have a solo campus show, in part because of the sheer volume of her portfolio. The exhibition includes all the pieces she submitted at the regional level.

In an interview last week at Hebron, a picturesque private school about 15 miles northwest of Lewiston, Kang said she felt honored and thankful for the recognition. More important than those emotions, winning national recognition affirmed her instincts and feelings about herself, she said.

“It gave me the confidence that I am respected for who I am,” she said. “But at the same time, I am scared. People’s standards might go up. People will expect more from me.”

Kang grew up in South Korea, and came to North America with her sister and mother when she was a young girl. They lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, for four years. Her father, a surgeon, stayed behind while the girls received their education. They returned to South Korea after Kang completed seventh grade.

When she became high-school age, Kang told her parents she wanted to return to North America to continue her education. She attended one year of high school in New Jersey, then transferred to Hebron as a sophomore.

Kang’s art teacher and academic advisor, Jeanine Eschenbach, said the most impressive aspect of her work is her ability to master many media.

“Students at this age can do well at photography or do well at painting or some other medium. But she does a lot of things in a lot of media really well,” Eschenbach said. “She has no fear. She will try anything.”

The awards represent something of an ironic twist for Kang. Both winning entries were realistic depictions of common scenes. She generally avoids realism, and prefers making images that are more abstract.

“In the old days, you couldn’t take pictures, so people did realism to have pictures from the past. But now that we can take pictures, art should be from your own mind and imagination,” she said.

Kang’s work is personal and full of emotion. She creates images that combine a variety of media. She paints on tin foil, adds fabric to her paintings, and glues other materials to her paper and canvas surfaces.

When she paints, Kang uses her fingers instead of brushes, because she likes the tactile feeling of applying paint with her fingertips to her surfaces. “I like to touch everything,” she says. “It feels good, and it connects me to the process in a real way. It’s me being one with the painting.”

Kang is unsure of her career path. She will graduate from Hebron this spring and return to South Korea to be with her family during the summer. This fall, she will enter college, and is debating her options.

She has been accepted to art school as well as a general university, both in New York. She has yet to decide where she will go to school, but is certain she will continue her education in the States.

Regardless of her college choice, Kang intends to make her career as an artist. She hopes to study art therapy to help people heal through creative expression.

“I like to get creative. I don’t like to do what other people do,” she said. “I am who I am, and I get touched deep inside when I do these things. I think that art should not be fake, and that it should come from within you.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: [email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes