Put a pencil in her hand, give her a subject to draw, and Marion High School senior Jessie Taylor can create amazingly detailed lifelike artwork. But it was the simple use of a pencil to fill in little circles that eventually led her to the best public university visual arts program in the country.
“I was about 5 when I started drawing dresses, like in Disney movies ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” Taylor said. “My mom would buy bridal magazines, and I’d draw those dresses.”
Robin Taylor encouraged her young daughter by making sure she had plenty of drawing materials.
“When she was 7, for Easter she got a book that said ‘Designs by Jessie’ that I made for her, just blank paper, and she filled it,” Robin recalled.
Jessie participated in 4-H showing lambs, but eventually she decided to enter some of her drawings in competitions.
“A duck in the water, I drew a picture out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, and I drew a picture of an angel one time — that’s the one I got a reserve champion for,” Jessie said.
By the time Jessie was a junior in high school, she knew she wanted to go to college to study art.
“I loved doing art in school, I loved doing art out of school, so it sounded like a good career for me,” Jessie said.
When she took the ACT college entrance exam that fall, she filled in the circles on the score sheet to enroll in ACT’s Educational Opportunity Service. Colleges and universities use the service to build recruitment lists of students whose interests match majors they offer.
Jessie hadn’t thought much about college options beyond Kansas State University when literature from colleges around the country started arriving in her mailbox. One of the first to catch her eye was from the prestigious University of Chicago.
“I got a lot of stuff in the mail,” Jessie said. “I thought about going to the University of Chicago, but the out-of-state tuition was crazy for that school, around $60,000.”
But a better option surfaced when she received literature from the art department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. Annual college rankings compiled by U.S. News and World Report list VCU’s art program as the best in the country for public universities, and fourth among all colleges and universities.
“I got something in the mail from VCU that said it was the number one public arts school, and out-of-state tuition wasn’t completely horrible,” Jessie said. “I figured I could handle it, so I started really looking into it.”
“We’ve always encouraged her to do what she wants,” Robin said. “I always thought she would go to Kansas State, but you do what you do to encourage them. I told her to do it, it wouldn’t hurt to apply.”
Jessie worked with Marion High School art teacher Jim Versch to create a digital portfolio of her work to submit with her application. She sent her materials to VCU, and then waited.
“It was a little over a month. I wasn’t nervous because I wasn’t expecting to get in. When I got the acceptance letter I was really surprised,” Jessie said.
“I was kind of scared to go 1,000 miles away from home. Deep down I knew I was going to go, but I had to think it out a bit,” she said.
Her thought process got a boost from an unlikely but familiar connection, her freshman girls’ basketball coach, Mike Norris. Norris moved from Marion to Richmond last fall to become assistant director of leadership annual giving at VCU’s Massey Cancer Center. When Robin learned of the connection, she tracked Norris down.
“I got on Facebook, found him on there, sent him an e-mail to tell him what was going on, and asked him for pointers about Richmond,” Robin said.
“Although I just moved here, I did live in the suburbs of Richmond until I was 15,” Norris said. “I didn’t know a lot about the art program except that it was highly-regarded and they don’t let just anyone in.”
Norris offered to connect Jessie with his cousin Jessica, who graduated from the VCU art program a few years ago, and gave the Taylors information about Richmond.
“It has a small-town feel to it,” Norris said. “You can hang out downtown if you want, but there are rural areas and a tight-knit feel to the community, especially within VCU.”
“Because he helped us so much, I said ‘She’ll baby-sit for you,’” Robin laughed.
Jessie, Robin, and Jessie’s grandmother Macky Taylor visited VCU in February, and the trip convinced them this was the place for Jessie.
“It’s so pretty there, and I really liked the art program,” Jessie said. “First-year art students have to take art foundations — drawing, painting, the basics. It teaches you the different divisions of art before you decide what department of art you’ll go into.
“What really impressed me is that they are geared to helping the freshmen succeed,” Robin said.
While Jessie is leaving her options open, she has an idea about where she would like her studies to lead.
“My biggest dream would be to go to New York City and work in an art gallery, and then someday open up my own,” Jessie said.
Jessie’s dream got another boost this past week when VCU notified her she has been awarded a $5,000 scholarship.
Even though she is excited for her daughter, Robin has some mixed emotions.
“I’m going to be sad, she’s my baby, she’s leaving, but I just guess we’ll be taking a lot of trips to the East Coast,” Robin said. “Once she goes out there she probably will not come back home. I hope she follows her dream.”