Each year Laurie Kohler challenges her studio art students to put pen and ink to paper to draw attention to a current social issue.
After weeks of theme exploration, multiple sketches, and ongoing refinement, students submit their final pen and ink drawings to the 100 Neediest Cases. This campaign is a charitable movement that began in 1922 and is sponsored by the United Way and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which profiles 100 selected cases of local families and individuals in need.
This year, the drawing of a homeless man by Kyle Matthes ’20 was selected for the November 20 publication to accompany Cases 7, 8, and 9: three local families struggling to pay for utilities, critical home repairs, food, and clothing because of health issues and demanding living conditions.
“I go to a lot of Blues games,” said Kyle. “I always see the same person on the street in the same position. That’s what came to mind with this project so I tried to replicate that.”
Because the assignment is supposed to be completely original, Kyle staged a scene he could use for his reference photo, dressing his dad in loose-fitting clothes and using a lamp to create the lighting he wanted. He then worked through the trials of drawing with pen rather than pencil to meet the campaign submission requirements.
Working in pen poses challenges for the student artists. “You can’t erase pen,” explains Mrs. Kohler. “It’s a psychological thing with them. They don’t want to make a mark that’s not perfect, especially if they know they can’t change it. So they did a lot of practice prior to putting the pen on the final piece of paper.”
Kyle worked through several techniques before he was satisfied. “I tried doing this cross-hatching,” he said, pointing to one of several of his early sketches. “It didn’t make the folds look the way I wanted to, so I tried dots. I didn’t like that either. Eventually I got to these random lines. I kept practicing that and got it to where I liked it. I feel like that’s what set me apart from the other submissions.”
Mrs. Kohler agreed. “The students all spent a lot of time practicing and deciding what line quality they wanted to use and which was best to express the content,” she said. “Kyle put a lot of time and effort into that and came up with his own line quality. I think that probably was appealing to the judges.”
Scrolling through her pictures of all the student submissions that were recently on display at the History Museum, Mrs. Kohler pauses occasionally at particularly powerful illustrations. “I’ve been told from going to the openings over the years that it’s the illustrations a lot of times that draw the heartstrings of people. They can read the case, but then they look at the art and that just solidifies that need.”
Mrs. Kohler has incorporated the 100 Neediest Cases campaign into her curriculum for several years.
“We talk a lot about the 100 Neediest Cases and how important it is for the region,” she said, explaining that thousands of cases are actually submitted for consideration annually, even though only 100 are profiled in the paper. “Last year the campaign raised more than $1.6 million to help families in need,” she added. “And I just love the opportunity to put student artwork in the paper. The more opportunities these students have for showcasing and giving of their talents for some larger good, the better.”
For Kyle, having his artwork printed in the paper was especially exciting. “I feel honored,” he said. “My grandpa’s an artist and he thought it was the coolest thing. He was a career illustrator, and he made that work, which I’ve always admired. He always told me how lucky he was to do something he loved and make money doing it.”
“I would never have made it into the paper without the help and guidance from my grandfather and my teacher, Mrs. Kohler,” he added. “They have both taught me important lessons about not just art but also hard work and dedication.” Kyle said art will play into his future decisions, but as a junior he’s not sure how yet. For now, he appreciates the impact art can have on society. “Pen and dark colors really draw out the emotions in people and the dark side of these issues. I think the goal of using drawings like this is to touch people in a way that’s different.”