This local student was taking college classes before she had a driver’s license

Sofia Sierra has been one step ahead of her classmates since eighth grade.

That’s when the aspiring artist started working to improve her technique through advanced classes. Back then, she was getting high school-level instruction.

Sofia is 16 now, but she’s been taking college-level art courses since before she had a driver’s license.

“Like sports, the only way to get better with art is to keep doing it and keep doing it right,” she said. “I just feel like the best way for me to do that is to study with the best people that I can.”

When she returns to Belleville West High School as a junior in the fall, Sofia will have already earned college credit. She won a scholarship that will pay her tuition to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ summer program for high school students.

She will live in Philadelphia and attend classes at the academy from July 2 to Aug. 4. Until then, she’s taking another five-week course at Southwestern Illinois College.

Sofia has also worked with professors at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to create the portfolio that won her the Thomas Eakins Emerging Artist Scholarship from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While she studied at SIUE, Sofia saw a familiar face: her mom Sara.

“She’s going back to class at SIUE to get a graduate degree. It was so funny. I was taking classes across the hall from her,” Sofia said.

Sofia said she’s been surrounded by art since she was a baby. Her mom, an art teacher in Cahokia, introduced Sofia to painting and supported her passion for it.

“She’s always just like, ‘Yeah, go for it,’” Sofia said. “… When I started, I think I was like 3. She would give me paints, and I would be outside and do a tree or whatever.”

Now, Sofia likes depicting people in her work.

“I always have a figure in everything that I do. I don’t know if that was subconscious or not,” she said. “… There’s so many different things you can do with it.”

Sofia hopes to take what she’s learned from a young age and become a professional painter. But she doesn’t want her career to take the same path as Vincent van Gogh’s. His work includes the painting “The Starry Night” on display at the Museum of Modern Art today.

“He’s really famous right now, but throughout his whole life, nobody bought his paintings at all,” Sofia said of van Gogh. “He wasn’t famous until after he died. That’s something I’m scared about.”

She wouldn’t mind following in Andy Warhol’s footsteps, though. Warhol’s work is on display with van Gogh’s at the Museum of Modern Art, including the painting “Campbell’s Soup Cans.”

“He was obsessed with becoming famous, and then he did become famous, and he was this big superstar,” Sofia said. “... I’m not really concerned about being famous. I just want to be successful and love what I do. I want people to buy my paintings.”

Sofia said her dad Greg has helped her work toward success. He is an accounting professor at SIUE and drove her to art classes there before Sofia had her driver’s license.

“He’s the one that’s really pushed me to take these college classes,” she said.

Her trip to Philadelphia this summer will not be the first time Sofia has been away from home for an arts program. She said she previously attended the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan when she was 13, and when she was 15, she attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan.

Q: How did you feel when you found out that you were going to be spending the summer at this university that you want to attend someday?

A: “I was shocked, actually, that I got the scholarship. I was kind of just telling myself, ‘It’s OK. You’re not going to get it’ just to brace myself if I didn’t get it.

“… It was funny because I was at this bonfire one night and all of a sudden, I got a call from my dad, and he’s like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I’m like, ‘About what?’ He tried to make me all scared and stuff. He said, ‘You got the scholarship.’ … Everyone celebrated with me. It was awesome.”

Q: Are you open to other types of art that are out there, like digital art, or do you want to be a classic painter?

A: “I think my favorite thing in the world is painting, but I do Photoshop, and I do film photography, and I do mixed media and stuff like that. Actually at West, we have a dark room and a Mac lab, which is really nice. My teacher, Mr. (Rob) Thornberry, has pushed me in that direction so I have a good balance.”

Q: What are the challenges with drawing a figure from real life?

A: “A problem with that is if you have a person, they can’t sit there all day. The light changes because of the sun. Stuff can be moved. It can be really frustrating.

“… You have to get it down as fast as you can.”

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Meet Sofia Sierra

  • Age: 16
  • School: Junior at Belleville West High School
  • Town: Belleville
  • Parents: Sara and Greg Sierra
  • Siblings: Chloe, 12; Claudia, 8; and Gregory, 5
  • Pets: Koda, a Golden Retriever, and Penelope, a cat
  • Favorite subjects in school: Art and English
  • Least favorite subject: Math
  • School activities: Art Club, Key Club, Belleville West Little Theatre, swimming, track and cross country
  • Hobbies: Hiking, camping, family road trips, bonfires and float trips with friends
  • College plans: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • Career plans: Artist
  • Favorite artist: Painter Euan Uglow
  • Role model: Mom