Los Gatos teen wins HIAS poster contest

With a large, detailed pencil drawing composed of symbols of Judaism and icons of American freedom, Alexandra Schwartz, 13, of Los Gatos has won a national poster-art contest for immigrant youth

The Latvian-born teen's poster was chosen over nearly 300 entries in the 1998 contest sponsored by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The grand prize was a $1,000 savings bond.

"What the judges liked about it was the way she was able to express her feelings about this country, both the U.S. part and how she felt about being Jewish," said Rachel Zelon, director of refugee and immigrant services for New York-based HIAS, the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the United States.

Schwartz has been drawing and painting avidly since she was 7. She came to America with her older brother Boris and her parents, Miriam and Nahum, from Riga when she was 4 years old, after a short stay in Italy.

She remembers little about Latvian life, except peculiar things like "my friends and I were always eating icicles" at school during a typically long winter.

In Latvia, the Schwartzes didn't go to synagogue, but they are currently members of Reform Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos.

"My parents were aware of their Jewish heritage and that's why they left [the former Soviet Union]," said Schwartz. "Jewish people weren't getting respect there."

Schwartz had been taking art classes for close to four years and has worked in various media, but it wasn't until she decided to enter the contest that she began to infuse her work with a more symbolic meaning. Before, her usual subjects were stuffed animals, plates and silverware.

"My other pictures are more like lessons. With this one, I was aiming for something spiritual," she said.

In the winning poster, the Statue of Liberty flanked by the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges in the background, represents "religious freedom across America for everyone," she said.

Said Zelon: "This contest gives child refugees a way to communicate through their art what their lives are all about. Their immigrant experience and impressions are very vivid."

The Shabbat candles, tallit and the Torah pictured on a table in the foreground of the poster replicate Judaica objects Schwartz found in her home. She keeps the Torah and several other religious and historical Jewish texts on a bookshelf in her bedroom, along with Jewish folktale anthologies. Sometimes she likes to read them before she does her homework.

"I've read them all," she said.

While she's had a couple of exhibitions at the Addison-Penzak and Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Centers, and also displayed her work at her bat mitzvah last spring, Schwartz had never won an art contest before.

When she told her brother, "He was impressed," she said. "He said, `You're No. 1.'"

Her favorite artists are M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali and Vincent van Gogh.

"Their work is so perfect, it's spiritual," she said. "There's a lot of movent in the paintings. With van Gogh, you can see something happening through his brush strokes. He can make you feel a mood with his brush strokes."

Even though Schwartz draws virtually every day, she doesn't plan on a career in art.

"I've always wanted to be some sort of doctor," she said. "I enjoy doing art, but I don't want to be an artist."

Schwartz's poster will be part of HIAS' annual calendar, as will a piece by runner-up Rostislav Rybalov, 10, of San Jose.