A finished product. "Hiawatha, The Leader We Need" by America Garcia, a senior at Mill Creek High School.

“Swift of foot was Hiawatha;

He could shoot an arrow from him,

And run forward with such fleetness,

That the arrow fell behind him!”
~ Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855)

Every year students from around the world submit work for the Unsung Hero ArtEffect Project Awards competition. And while America Garcia, a senior at Mill Creek High School, had entered the competition in previous years, she knew 2019 was going to be different.

“I started entering my art in the 10th grade, but I didn’t take it seriously. There were so many other students participating, I didn’t think there was a point. But as I got older, I started to put more effort each year,” America said.

The effort she put into “Hiawatha, The Leader We Need” is evident in the intricacies of the painting. Her 2019 submission depicts the Native American chief of the Onondaga Tribe, who is believed to have united his people under the Iroquois Confederation.

L-R: Art Teacher Mike Lasseter; America Garcia, Grand Prize Winner of the 2019 Unsung Hero ArtEffect Project, and proud father Noel Garcia.L-R: Art Teacher Mike Lasseter; America Garcia, Grand Prize Winner of the 2019 Unsung Hero ArtEffect Project, and proud father Noel Garcia.For her conscientious artwork, America won the grand prize for the worldwide competition. Sponsored by the Lowell Milken Center, the annual competition awards those that discover an artistic interpretation that honors the legacy of an Unsung Hero.

“I wanted to recognize the Iroquois Confederation, “America said of her inspiration for the painting. “I learned about what [Hiawatha] did in a history class, so I wrote a paper alongside a cultural visual sketching for my class.”

Where in years past, she thought there was no chance of winning, America decided to invest every ounce of her talent for the 2019 competition. “I figured even if I didn’t win, at least I would know I had tried my best,” she said.

And so, the high school senior spent many hours researching and revising her idea. She started by sketching the image digitally on her iPad and considered submitting a graphic design for the competition. But following her art teacher’s recommendation, America decided to go the extra mile and paint the image on canvas.

“It was a lot more work to hand-paint it, mostly because it was harder to fix mistakes. But I had the rough idea on my iPad.”

The idea developed as America put more thought into Hiawatha’s legacy. In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855), the leader is characterized as the embodiment of human advancement and as one who yields the powers of nature to create peace and prosperity.

Accordingly, America endowed her painted with mysticism. It pictures Hiawatha below a starry sky. A full moon illuminates his face which appears serene, perhaps convening with a Great Spirit or with his natural surroundings.

America Garcia's work in progress!America Garcia's work in progress!“At first, I was mostly thinking what he did was cool. And then, when the government shutdown happened, I just thought we could learn from him. This guy united all these scattered and warring tribes. Maybe, if we all compromised a little, we could work together, too.”

America was recognized during an award ceremony where she was presented a $6,000 check. The surprise ceremony was attended by her art teacher, Mike Lasseter, along with 60 of her peers.

Of his student’s work, Lasseter said, “I want to spread the word, far and wide! America is an amazing student —intelligent, kind, hard-working, positive and respectful. I couldn’t be happier for her. She is wonderful and deserves this recognition.”

The ArtEffect Project aims to teach students their potential to create positive change through creative storytelling that celebrates Unsung Heroes — “extraordinary individuals who changed history but were never recognized.” Through the competition, the ArtEffect Project hopes participating students will come to follow their hero’s footsteps and inspire positive social action as they share their projects.

Energized by her success, America looks forward the challenges she will face after high school. She plans to attend the University of Georgia, and both her parents and younger brother share in her excitement.

“I’m not exactly sure what I want to study yet — I think I want to be a lawyer,” America admitted. “Of course, I will always love art and will continue to do it just for me.”