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From Current Events To Canvas: This Teenage Prodigy Is Painting For Change

Culture

She may be a teenager, but Autumn de Forest has already accomplished more than most hope to do in a lifetime.


The 15-year old artistic prodigy has not only sold millions of dollars in artwork, but she is also the youngest artist ever appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the Turnaround Arts program. De Forest has also been featured on almost every morning and daytime television show imaginable, lectured for top universities and corporations, and even had a personal meeting with Pope Francis, in which she gifted him a piece of her art.

“I am always studying art, whether it's looking for ideas, going to museums, or traveling," says de Forest. “Whatever I can get my hands on, I try to learn from. I realized [early on] I wanted to create all different kinds of [artistic] styles. I didn't want to marry one."

The Freshman at Odyssey Charter High School in Las Vegas is as imaginative as she is sophisticated. Quick-witted and thoughtful, de Forest is truly learning-obsessed, which is reflected in her multifaceted array of work that channels styles that range from impressionism to pop art. De Forest is also inherently socially conscious and has worked with a variety of social organizations including The Red Cross and Habitat For Humanity, to name a few.

“Before I ever sold a painting, I knew I wanted to help people with my artwork," says de Forest, whose work has benefited such causes as the Haiti relief fund, the Japanese Tsunami, Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Bombing. “I didn't think it was right to just create paintings and sell them. I wanted to sell them for people who needed help."

Autumn de Forest

With a talent that has been compared to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, it is easy to see that de Forest has a taste level beyond her years. “I started painting in my late 5s and 6s," says de Forest with a laugh. “I saw my father sanding some wood and asked him if I could mess around. I picked up the paintbrush and started creating. I was just having fun and expressing myself and my dad said [my first piece] looked like a [Mark] Rothko. I didn't know who that was."

It wasn't long after that, that de Forest's mother came home one day with a number of canvases and high quality paints in the hopes of further inspiring her daughter's creativity. And inspire she did.

Autumn de Forest "Grasp"

“I wanted to learn more about the art world so I went to the bookstore and found some books on different artists [and saw pieces] like Dali's Persistence of Memory," says de Forest. "I was mesmerized by art. I didn't even know that you could paint like that. I realized that painting was my career and it's what I wanted to do."

The work that de Forest began creating was inspired indeed. With an inclusive approach to creation that incorporates simplicity and bold colors, impressionistic imagery, and awe-inspiring abstracts, each Autumn de Forest piece emits a feeling of worldliness and depth of thought. To see the evolution of de Forest's work over the last decade, visit her digital gallery, which chronicles it by each year of her life.

“Creating the piece is the easy part," says de Forest, of her artistic inspiration. “A lot of my paintings come from ideas that I think would look good on canvas. I will look at an artist for inspiration and then mix it with a problem of today to create a piece that not only appeals to the artwork but also to people in need. I want to make it more powerful than a pretty picture."

As she continued imagining more artwork, de Forest says she was asked about the inspiration behind it by friends and family, and thus began exploring more the “why" of her process. From there she realized that she was not only drawn to creation, but also telling stories. “I had a new passion talking about my artwork, giving it a meaning not just to me," she says. “After that day, each painting had a story."

Another passion that emerged was giving back. De Forest tells SWAAY that she has always felt a deep desire to help others, and that she began to incorporate that into her work by studying the news, specifically those devastating world events that affect so many. She began creating pieces that interpreted and ultimately, fiscally benefited the victims of unexpected tragedy.

de Forest with Pope Francis in Rome

“When I was six years old I saw on the news that there was an earthquake in Haiti," says de Forest. “They took a camera and panned over the destruction and I realized that I have to do a piece for all of those people who have lost so much; their loved ones, and everything they had."

For de Forest it is important not just to give donations but to actually imbue her work with the emotions of what others are going through. She is currently working on a series about the war in Aleppo inspired by this haunting image of a young boy in an emergency truck. “I'm currently working on a series concerning problems in the world," says de Forest. “I try to think 'if I were in this person's situation, how would I feel? Then I think how to tell that story through color and the strokes of my paint brush."

De Forest also makes it a point to visit underfunded and underperforming schools across the country to “work with kids, paint with them, empower and inspire them." Additionally, she has begun creating her own nonprofit, which she hopes will benefit young artists in underprivileged schools, helping them create college savings accounts.

To be sure, one of the biggest coups of her young career was being honored with the Giuseppe Sciacca Award for Arts and Culture, which de Forest traveled to Rome to accept. During her time in Italy, de Forest was given the opportunity to present a "powerful yet simple" piece she titled “Resurrection" to Pope Francis. “He inspires me just being a person," she says. "He is so warm, loving, tolerant and accepting. He took the time to talk with me, bless me and the piece as well. It was probably my favorite memory of all time."

When it comes to her own creative process, de Forest says it's a surreal, almost stream-of-conscious experience. “I definitely get lost in it, especially if I have a new series that I'm working on," says de Forest. “I try to create all my pieces in different styles. I can do an abstract one month inspired by Picasso and my next idea could be inspired by Liechtenstein."

De Forest, who hopes to attend UCLA and study abnormal psychology when she's old enough of course, said the relationship between the brain and emotions has been currently inspiring some of her newest pieces. When asked if she has time for normal teenage activities, de Forest says she loves hanging out with friends and going to the mall. Of course, unlike her friends, she is also actively creating museum-quality artwork, and working to change the world through philanthropy. No big deal.

“I definitely would love to continue exhibiting and creating different artwork," says de Forest, regarding her future career. “As a female artist creating pieces that are sharing important messages in the world, it would be remarkable to continue this work."

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Politics

Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.


When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.