Among the first things evident about Palmetto Elementary student Cody Knecht’s Fairchild Challenge-winning drawing of a Keys tree cactus is its unusual perspective. Where most would approach the project at a parallel head-on angle, he chose to depict the cactus from beneath, pointing upward towards the moonlit sky under which it blooms. This aesthetic choice adds to the majesty of the plant, which according to recent studies conducted by Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden has suffered an 80 percent population decline since it was first surveyed in 1993. Out of thousands of entrants in his grade, Cody’s drawing won first prize.
“We had no idea he’d won, and I actually thought at first that he was in trouble,” says his mother Ada. “I took him to school and they told me, ‘You have to go to the media center.’ As we were walking, they told us that Cody’s drawing won a contest. I asked Cody what he drew. He said, ‘I don’t know, I draw a lot of things.’”
The focus of the Fairchild Challenge is to encourage students to connect with plants, animals and their environment and create original art inspired by them. Each participating grade level is given a different theme. Possible projects extend beyond the visual arts as well; students may also write about the environment and come up with ideas on how to save the planet and its ecosystems.
Cody’s teacher Patricia Cummins, a 23- year veteran instructor of art, science and mathematics at Palmetto Elementary, has been involved with the organization’s scholastic outreach for four years. A recognized environmental artist herself whose work can be seen at <www.patcummins.com>, she is quick to recognize the benefit of working with as gifted and dedicated a young artist as Cody.
“He’s an established, award-winning artist,” she says. “He has the patience to sit down and move things with his hands and make these pieces of art.”
Nurtured creatively by his parents, both with well-developed artistic sides, Cody began to show signs of a keen visual acumen very early, when at two and a half and in the midst of what would later be referred to as his “whale period,” he composed an elegantly minimalist painting in his pre-kindergarten class depicting a mother whale and her baby calf. It was later published in an international whale conservation magazine and is proudly displayed in the Knecht kitchen.
“He’s one of those kids who would rather stay at home and draw,” says Ada. “When he was little, he would draw all the time, going through 500 pieces of paper within a month, and he would tape his drawings all over the house.”
Picasso had his blue, cubism and surrealism periods. Manet had impressionism and realism. Cody, a multiple-medium young artist who works in paint, pencil, acrylic, clay and balloons, transitioned between whales, snakes and spiders before arriving in his current period, octopi.
“I like octopuses because they’re smart, have eight legs, no bones, three hearts and they can squeeze through small places that not even humans can fit through,” he says. “I have quite a lot of books about them.”
Seldom can an artist maintain a singular focus for too long before growing restless, and it appears Cody will soon be shifting his attention to an area of universally widespread youthful enthusiasm. “I may want to try and work on dinosaurs next,”
he says. For more information on the Fairchild Challenge, go to <www.fairchildgarden.org/education/Th eFairchildChallenge>.