Matt Porter, Scholastic Art Awards

Matt Porter is an aspiring civil engineer who dabbles in art.

Matt Porter is an aspiring civil engineer who dabbles in art.

Photo By David Robert

Little gray cars wind up a snowy, tree-lined highway to visit the national monument, “Mount Cowmore.” The revered faces of four serene cows in various stages of cud-chewing are sculpted into the mountainside. The black hole of a tunnel bisects its middle and disappears.

An art assignment to combine cows with history resulted in this particular sculpture, which earned a Gold Key from the Scholastic Art Awards. This and many other regional pieces winning Gold Key, Silver Key and Director’s Selections awards are now on exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art.

“Someone said to me, ‘What are you trying to say? That the Founding Fathers of the country are lazy and like cows?’ I had no intention of doing that,” says the artist, Matt Porter, a lanky 17-year-old senior at Spanish Springs High School. “That’s what I like about art—getting people to think outside of the box, outside of my intentions.”

Porter is one of 60 junior high and high school students in Northern Nevada whose submissions of paintings, textiles, designs, computer art, photography and sculptures earned a Gold Key. Those works went on to compete nationally in New York City. National winners are eligible for scholarships and the chance to exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Porter’s works are somewhat cartoonish, with a touch of the absurd. Though viewed as political by some, they’re about humor to him.

Take “Mister Sensible,” a Silver Key winner also on display here. Mister Sensible is a man with all his senses: a giant nose; flappy ears; big, crooked teeth; huge, bulbous eyes. He looks like something out of a Roald Dahl story. With his tie over his shoulder and button-down shirt, Mister Sensible is a civil engineer, which is what Porter plans to be.

“That’s how he sees himself!” says his art teacher, Jill Neri, about “Mister Sensible.” “Everything he does is just kind of quirky and good and Matt-like.”

There is certainly something grounded and modest about Porter, a low-key guy who’s self-deprecating without being pitiful. He seems to go about his artwork out of curiosity and not because he expects great reward.

“He has a number of pieces that are really phenomenal,” says Neri. “He’s just so motivated. He takes on a ton and learns about the material [by mistakes].”

One piece currently displayed in his school’s library is “Birdbath,” a sculpture of a seated man holding his head in his lap. A bird bath rests where his head should be. While his classmates were making ashtrays and serving bowls, Porter worked intensely on this intricate structure, only for it to blow up in the kiln last year. But rather than give up in despair, he rebuilt it.

Porter took his first art class his sophomore year, and those first pieces were nothing to rave about, says Neri. He was just fooling around with clay, trying to figure out what worked. That’s what makes him such a great example to other students, says Neri, “He just keeps pushing along.”

Porter’s sights are set on civil engineering, but he’s enjoying this experience. “I think it’s exciting to be a Scholastic Art Award winner. Who knows, maybe it’ll make me a popular guy or something,” he says with a grin and a shrug.

As for Mount Rushmore, well, he’s never been. “But now, I definitely want to go,” he says.