Superhero art show a year in the making

Exhibit features action figures, award-winning student artists

Among the visitors to the North Bergen High School student art show this year was a surprise guest: The Hulk. Towering over the other attendees, the bulky green giant was joined by pals SpiderMan, Thor, Captain America, Groot, and more, all facing off against their sworn nemesis, Ultron.
The showdown took place backstage in the school auditorium as part of the annual student art show. Art Teacher Steven Defendini coordinated the “secret” project with all the Marvel characters, designed and created entirely by a handful of students between September 2014 and the beginning of June.
“Nobody knew we had this,” said Defendini of the popular exhibition. “To keep this quiet in a school of 3,000 kids was difficult.”
But there were whispers. Two years ago Defendini’s students built a static, life-sized model of Iron Man. Last year they far exceeded that with a full mock-up of the Batcave, complete with the Batcycle and the Dark Knight himself. So this year the senior class had to top themselves.
And that’s exactly what they did, with a wide array of towering statues in action poses.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

“After the summer movie came out, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ we said we have to do this, and [Defendini] agreed with it,” said Curtis Gonzalez, one of Defendini’s students. “And then after we did it we realized we should expand. We have the capability to do more. So we just did everyone from Marvel that we could.”
“This for me is a hobby that I liked doing as a kid,” said senior Anthony Cho. “In my room I have model airplanes and robots. So this is just like a step up.”
Chris Gonzales got hooked his freshman year, when Defendini helped him create a prop from the Transformers movies. “I saw the thing they made last year with Batman, so I told him I’d be interested in doing it this year,” said Gonzales. Defendini assigned him to create Thor’s hammer, and from there it blossomed.

“Art expresses who I am as a person. That’s how I speak to everyone.” –Samantha Rueda
Characters or even single components like helmets or arms were created by individual students, then assembled by the group. Parts were fashioned largely from recycled scrap and ephemera. “We have vacuum hoses and tubing, a treadmill, a car bumper,” said Defendini. “Whatever we could get our hands on, we used.”
The project, he estimated, took over 400 hours to complete, with students working through holidays and weekends and long after school ended for the day.
“I’ve been to a lot of comic conventions and stuff and I’ve worked with a lot of different people, and I’ve honestly never worked with a group, adult or otherwise, that’s this dedicated,” said Defendini.
Gonzalez plans to attend Bloomfield College in the fall, studying game design. What will he apply from this hands-on experience in the virtual world? “Everything,” he said. “Problem solving. Creating models. Studying the body structure and applying it to digital.”

Outside the box

Officer Mark Francin is a North Bergen Policeman and one of the school’s resource officers. Also, “I’m a big, big Marvel fan,” he said. “One day I saw a kid walking with Rocket Raccoon [from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’] under his arm and I followed him all the way back here, and this area was all blacked out. It was like White House, top secret, secret service only. I said, ‘I’m a police officer, I have to check back there.’”
Spotting the massive Hulk, Franzen was awestruck. “I was like a little kid. I told them, ‘Take a picture of me with the Hulk.’ These kids did such an amazing job. Mr. Defendini does a tremendous job with the kids.”
Working in completely different media was Marlene Sapoff, who teaches fashion and textiles at the school. Her students crafted a set of unique dresses and fashion accessories like painted handbags.
All the items they created were environmentally friendly, using recycled materials such as fabric donated by an upholsterer in town. Handles on one purse were stitched together from old ties donated by one of Sapoff’s neighbors.
Samantha Rueda crafted a stuffed animal from a pattern, but with a difference. “Originally it was a bunny but I wanted mine to be different. I wanted it to be based off of an anime,” she said speaking about a Japanese cartoon character. “You can do anything if you think outside the box.”
Inspired by her artist stepmother, Rueda will be attending Berkeley in the fall to study graphic design and animation. In addition to her stuffed critter, she displayed a number of drawings at the art show, largely based on classic Japanese animation. She is currently teaching herself Japanese and hopes “to go abroad to Japan for graphics and animation. That’s my ultimate goal.”
“To me, art expresses who I am as a person,” she said. “That’s how I speak to everyone.”

Award winners

Paul Sepulveda is another animation fan, albeit in a completely different format. He has worked on short films using stop motion animation, creating models and shooting them one frame at a time with infinitesimal movements to simulate life.
“I used clay,” he explained. “I love claymation. I wish more people would do it.” Originally he started with a character inspired by his love of Mario games, but now his creations have taken on a form of their own. “They look like generic humanoids, and they transform into different shapes.”
His goal is to work in animated film. “When I get older I want to open my own animation studio,” he said. “Or become part of a bigger one, but I would prefer my own, creating my own stuff.”
At the art show he displayed a number of richly detailed colored pencil drawings, including some award winners from regional art shows. His pictures are highly imaginative, combining realistic images in strange combinations, with a pronounced Salvador Dali influence. “I like the surrealistic side of art,” he said. “You can play with it more.”
Katherine Gonzalez, a junior, was another award-winner at the show, displaying artworks created with pencil and sharpies.
“I’m more of a visual person,” she said, explaining that her artwork largely depicts life as she experiences it. “I see something that catches my attention, I’ll draw it. I’m not a creative person. I’m more literal.”
Originally intending to become a chef, she was dissuaded by Principal Paschal “Pat” Tennaro, who steered her in another direction. It was then that Gonzalez began to delve into art.
“I was already drawing but it was like a side thing,” she recalled. “I wasn’t really into it. But once I started learning more things and people started getting more interested, I got more into it. I wouldn’t have made it this far if it wasn’t for the teachers I had, their criticisms, how to do all this. It really helped a lot, especially Ms. DiGiulio, my teacher. She really supports me.”
Art has since taken over Gonzalez’s life. She is currently studying both drawing and digital art, looking to discover her own path.
“I know I want to do something within the art field,” she said. “I want to do something I love for the rest of my life. The passion I have for art is amazing. I can’t last a day without drawing. The best thing is when I draw something people enjoy. I love making people happy.”

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