When Ava Obert was a baby, she carried around an art book instead of a blanket. For as long as her mother Summer can remember, Ava has been intrigued with beautiful color and design. “The book was one of my college books and Ava found it when she was two or three years old,” said Summer. “At night, she would ask me to tell her about the art in the book rather than have me read her bedtime stories.” That was Summer’s first inclination that her child might be a creative soul.
The older Ava got, the more she loved things with aesthetic beauty. While other children her age were caught up in the world of Disney, Ava begged her mom to take her to visit children’s author and artist Eric Carl. “Ava would always ask me to read the section in the back of her books about the authors and illustrators. When she was four, and I asked her where she would like to go on vacation, I expected her to say Disney World, but she said she would rather visit Eric Carl and do art with him.” When she was five, she began hitting the pause button on the television remote and drawing her favorite characters, Spongebob and Phineas & Ferb.
“We noticed Ava had a gift, but it was at a Baxter County Library children’s event one summer that her talent was noticed by others. Art instructor Steve Hargett asked the children to look at their hand and draw it. When my husband picked Ava up after the class, the instructor took him aside and said that Ava had an amazing talent, well beyond her young age of nine,” said Summer. That was the point at which Summer decided she needed to find the right person to mentor Ava and find out if this was for real.
A friend recommended Duane Hada as an instructor who might be a good fit. Maybe it’s because Duane had a frustrating time expressing himself as an artistic boy without formal training, or maybe it’s because the two have a shared love of the outdoors that makes this relationship between teacher and student so unique; but unique it is. “As a child, I didn’t have access to formal instruction and I became easily frustrated.” Creative frustration, at any age, isn’t necessary, it turns out. Duane says he can teach almost anyone to draw. “If you can hold a pencil and make a mark and have one good eye, I can train you in the mechanics of drawing. Ava has something else working for her in that she is in tune with aesthetic things, even at her young age.”
When Duane met Ava, he recognized that, even at nine, she loved color and light and was already picking out things in nature she wanted to draw. “The first time I met with Ava, I asked her what she would like to draw and she said a cheetah,” said Duane. “I knew she and I had similar passions.” Duane is a noted outdoorsman who captures the natural beauty of the Ozarks in his paintings and drawings. He holds a BSE in Art from the University of Central Arkansas, but it’s his passion for fly fishing that is reflected in his creative work. “You paint best what you know. I wanted Ava to paint what she had a passion for. I can teach mixing paint and mechanical technique, but the passion is where an artist finds their own style.”
Over the last two years of their working together, Ava and Duane have been known to ride the roads looking for the right inspiration for a painting. “We’ll pull the truck over and paint, if we see something that calls to us,” said Duane. One of Summer’s favorite’s of her daughter’s paintings is a field of purple and red flowers that Ava knew she and Duane had to paint. “She found this field of beautiful wildflowers and together, she and Duane took their paints and easels and spent an afternoon painting it.”
Ava’s eyes light up when she talks about painting. “I like things with color – contrasting color! When I’m painting dogwoods, the white just pops with an opposite color on the color wheel like pink.” Dogwoods are a new favorite subject for Ava to paint, and Duane says she paints them in watercolor with a skill he hasn’t seen even in his adult students. Ava seems to love the challenge. “I love the feel of painting with watercolors,” said Ava. “It’s simpler, but harder to do…do you know what I mean?” Duane knows what she means. “Many of my adult students have a difficult time with watercolor if they have experience in another medium like acrylics. This kid can fly effortlessly between pastels, acrylics, pencils and watercolor. It’s really amazing.”
Ava and Duane agree on one more thing…they can’t be forced to paint things they aren’t interested in. When Duane was a young boy, a man offered him $25 to paint his mailbox. The name of the man’s farm was Lone Acres and he wanted to commission Duane to paint an old man bent over on a cane on the side of his mailbox. As much as Duane wanted the $25, he turned it down. “I just couldn’t do it. I had no interest at all in painting an old man with a cane, and it didn’t matter what he was willing to pay, I couldn’t make myself do it.” Ava knows the feeling. “My uncle loves golf and wants me to paint a golf course for him, but I can’t get in the mood for it. I don’t like the activity of golf. What you have a love for, you’ll paint better.”
Talking to Ava isn’t like talking to a child; she seems balanced and mature beyond her 11 years. When you ask this child what she wants to be when she grows up, she answers like someone with the perspective of a PhD candidate. “I would love to be an artist, but it’s a very risky business. Not everyone will like your work,” she says. “If I’m not an artist when I grow up, I think I would like to be a home designer or a clothing designer.” And then, just like that, she’s a little girl again. “Do you ever watch that show on HGTV, Love It or List It? I love that show! I redecorate my room about twice a month!”
Like her mentor, Duane, who has won both regional and national recognition for his work, Ava has already won her share of accolades. In 2013, she took first place in the State-Fish Art Program contest (grades 4-6) and in the Junior Duck Stamp Contest (grades 4-6). Her entry in the duck stamp contest made it to the judge’s top five favorites from over 3,000 entries overall. She repeated the first place Junior Duck Stamp win in 2014 with her entry again making it to the top five favorites and then a first place selection from over 3,000 entries statewide from all age groups. Her piece went on to represent the state of Arkansas in the national judging and will be a part of the national travelling exhibit. The respected Junior Duck Stamp program is 20 years old and is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program that supports conservation education.
Ava sketches every day and spends an hour or two working with Duane each week, but she still enjoys school. While Duane’s mother received a note from his fifth grade teacher saying that Duane should spend more time on math and less time drawing, Ava says she is often recognized for her ability and feels encouraged by her teachers and peers to express herself artistically at school. “School is fun! I love being there. I get chosen to do a lot of projects at my school because of my art.” Again, the mature Ava speaks when she continues, “You know, art and science really overlap. In my science class we keep a journal and record our observations through drawings. I love that!” And then, without missing a beat, the 11 year old Ava speaks, “now math….that’s not my favorite!”