Art had become just a hobby for Danielle Chan. There wasn't much time for art classes in high school. Art got no respect in the academic rat race to college, and all she heard was that art doesn't pay in the real world.
But today she's a happy freshman at UC Berkeley, where she's following her artistic heart at the College of Environmental Design. What saved her from a career path she didn't really want was a unique art competition sponsored by the Museums of Los Gatos that gives young students a good idea of what it takes to succeed as an artist. Chan won best of show, $5,000, and something priceless.
"It took something that was a hobby for me and opened up new possibilities," she said. "It gave me the confidence I needed to explore careers in the design field."
Until recently, the competition was limited to students from one local high school. The prizes were modest, and it drew lower-quality art than desired. Then came Michael Parsons, a museum board member and philanthropist who wanted more. He suggested opening the competition to all high schools in Santa Clara County and increasing a top prize to $10,000, an eye-popping amount to high school students.
"I figured the only way to get better quality art was to get more students," said Parsons, a retired dentist and real estate agent. He and his wife run the Michael and Alyce Parsons Foundation.
In 2012, they and the museum came up with a competitive exhibit show that puts art students through the same gauntlet that professional artists run through to win commissions and get their works into public exhibits and private galleries.
Following professional procedures, they give students a theme. Last year's was to express in art how technology has affected human life. In the first round, the students wrote essays explaining their visual interpretations and sent high-quality slides of the artwork to a panel of three expert judges. In the final round, the students had to frame their paintings or photographs or stage their sculptures in the museum's showroom.
About 450 students entered last year. Seventy became finalists. For many, it was the first time they tried to deliver a statement about the world around them through art. But as a group, their inexperience showed.
"I think that they struggled to grasp what they were trying to say," said Lynn Powers, a retired professor of art at San Jose State and one of the three judges. "Many were doing visual one-liners. They needed to say something more complex and sophisticated."
Chan was an exception, of course. Her winning piece was a Chinese food takeout box made of clay. She surrounded it with paper fortune cookies and a ribbon of tape on which she typed critiques on the power, allure and hubris of high tech. She had never thought that hard while making art.
"At first it was a little bit intimidating," the 19-year-old said, "but once I got some ideas, it was a fun process."
Stephany Sanchez-Perez placed second in painting for her disturbing but mesmerizing image of a gluttonous figure holding the severed heads of a robot and a man. At 30 by 40 inches, it was the largest piece she had ever painted.
"The contest challenged me," said the graduate of Del Mar High in San Jose, who is now studying graphic design at West Valley College. "I learned you have to go all out because you don't know who the competition is."
Artists and patrons alike agreed that the state of art education in public schools has taken a tumble over the decades. Instruction is often limited to rudimentary techniques, such as proper brush strokes for lighting, shadows and simple expressions of mood. Art instruction rarely gets into social or political reflection, they said.
The arts aficionados argued that California, like many states, has eroded the creative arts under a perfect storm of revenue deficits, school budget cuts and the desperate drive to raise basic test scores under onerous, federally mandated No Child Left Behind requirements.
At the same time, technology industry leaders complained about the sorry state of public education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But while tech has the money to fund education projects and promote itself as a lucrative field, art can't. And the youths know it.
"The computer classes," Chan said, "seemed to get what they wanted at our school."
Even the state bureaucracy acknowledges the decline of art instruction. Two years ago, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson appointed a statewide task force called Create CA to increase funding, give art classes more weight toward graduation and college, and promote art as a tool for creativity in general. Its first report is expected to arrive this year.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Museums of Los Gatos competition is making some headway in Santa Clara County.
This past fall, art teacher Amber Woodward required 10 of her students at Christopher High School in Gilroy to enter this year's contest. All 10 eagerly applied well before the Feb. 14 deadline. With a good deal of Latino students from rural and working-class, low-income families, Christopher High is a school where art must compete for funding.
"Everybody at this school and in the district respects art and wants to keep it in the curriculum, but in the end it comes down to a financial decision," Woodward said.
Art education has fallen to the point where even the most talented students take a realistic approach and prepare themselves for steady paychecks in related fields or elsewhere.
Months before winning first place for painting in the Museums of Los Gatos competition, Homestead High graduate Connor Church had decided to study architecture in college.
"My whole life I wanted to be an artist," he said by telephone from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he is a freshman. "But pursuing a career in art may not be the most functional or reliable choice for income."
Still, architecture calls for putting creative ideas on paper, and Church is content with that. But if fine art calls him back during college, he's ready to go after winning such a big prize. In fact, he used his $500 in prize money to buy art supplies.
Michael Parsons, the philanthropist behind the competition, wasn't disappointed when he heard about Church's practical career choice.
"I would like to see art students -- the good ones -- go on and be creative," Parsons said, "and produce art in whatever they do."
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.
Feb. 14 is the deadline for entering the Museums of Gatos third annual Santa Clara County High School Juried Art Exhibition. Winning art works will be on display April 24 to May 18. For more information, call 408-354-2646 or go to www.museumsoflosgatos.org.