By Richard G. Biever
The 2024 cooperative calendar’s “Artist of the Year,” Justine Ocken, proves that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the Ocken tree. Pardon the pun, but the oaken reference is something her family embraces, and family is something the Whitko High School senior embraces in every work of art she creates.
“I love to make art for my family. That’s my thing,” she said, sitting in her high school’s art room where she completed her entries for the calendar art contest last spring. One, she called “Splashing Away,” is a rider astride a horse crossing a shallow stream with a dog at their side. All three are moving away from the viewer toward a shaded wood. The colored pencil illustration not only won the 11th grade division, but judges selected it as “Best of Show,” as well.
The rider, Ocken noted, is her older brother, Jarrett. The dog is the family’s beloved Australian cattle dog, Itty Bitty, now deceased. The work is a composite based on three photos several years old. “When I made this, it was for the calendar. But it was also like I’m giving that to my brother,” she said.
In addition, a second work she entered won an honorable mention for her grade division. It’s called, “Recipe for Tradition.” This illustration features her dog sniffing out Thanksgiving fixings atop the stove and kitchen counter at her grandmother’s home. Those two works stood out to contest judges among all the junior entries. For all three honors, Ocken received $375 in prize money.
“Those pieces are important to my family and me. So, it was really cool to be able to tell them that the pieces actually made it in something that mattered,” she said.
SWEEPING HER DIVISION
This was the second time Ocken swept her grade division. As a freshman, her illustration of an old wagon wheel against a red barn took first place to illustrate September, and another illustration of three of her family’s horses in a field won the honorable mention. In the contest’s 26 years, only three times has one student won both first and honorable mention in the same year. Ocken’s done it twice.
The art contest for the 2024 Cooperative Calendar of Student Art was judged last spring. The 13 first place winners for grades kindergarten through high school senior were selected to illustrate the months of the calendar and the cover; an honorable mention for each of the 13 grades was also selected. The first-place work captures a kind of “November in her soul” because it depicts a huge and sad change in her life. Jarrett had gone off to college at Purdue, his horse, Cowboy, was “re-homed,” and their dog had to be euthanized. “My brother, one of my best friends, and the horse and the dog all went away at the same time.”
The honorable mention work depicts a happier family gathering for Ocken. “That’s my dog, Molly. She’s really important to me. I draw her all the time.”
Three photos on the counter and backsplash are from her mom’s side of the family. One is of her great grandpa’s hand holding grain. Another is her great grandpa. Another is the wedding day of her great grandparents. “I tried to incorporate a bit of everything from that side of the family in there. The wreath, it’s not exactly the wreath that we had, but there was one like that at my grandma’s house. That’s where we go for Thanksgiving.”
Dan Malicki, the art teacher at Whitko, said Ocken’s pursuit of excellence is almost second to none. “She was always good in art, but I think probably about her sophomore year she kicked it in.”
Joining her in the empty, post-lunch classroom to talk about her art, Malicki added, “So it’s actually kind of nice to see her face because usually, in class, you see only the top of her head. She’s always working.”
INCORPORATING OAK LEAVES
As a sophomore, Ocken entered the contest. While her work didn’t win that year, she’s still fond of that illustration. “So, I did a picture of Molly, which is not a surprise to anyone who knows me. And she was in the leaves and stuff. The leaves were all oak leaves. It was really fun for me.”
Oak leaves are another little inside family tie she likes to subtly use in her works. It follows a theme in the equestrian gear her parents once custom made. Her mom, Lyn, is a former art teacher and now a school administrator in Huntington, and her dad, Jay, a welding instructor with the Whitko school system.
A big part of Ocken’s art and her family’s life are horses. They do open shows during the summer. She said she and her brothers, Jarrett and Jhett, grew up riding. “There was never a time that I wasn’t,” she said.
A decade or so ago, her parents also put their artistic skills into their love of horses by creating and selling custom bridles, spurs, and other gear for horse shows. Her mom would sketch out and engrave the metal pieces her dad created. “They liked to incorporate the oak leaves,” she said. “I love to look at her sketches because they’re so ‘flowy’ and they usually have that signature leaf in it. Seeing them has been pretty much my inspiration.”
She noted, “Everything was very practical, but still was very personable. They would do names or they would do symbols. Stuff like that.”
Through FFA, Ocken has dabbled with the blow torch, too. “I got to do some welding, but it wasn’t really artistic. I’ve played around with it, but I’ve never made something special. But I do like sculptures. I think I’m the best at colored pencils, but I like pastel and paint … everything.”
One thing Ocken likes about winning in the calendar art contest is passing out calendars to family. Each winner gets 10 complimentary copies. “For Christmas, my grandma or I usually pass out the calendars. Over the next year, it’s really cool to get to see those in my relatives’ house. It just makes me feel I’m more part of their lives. And, then my brother [now living and working in Nebraska], he hangs them up on his wall. So, I get to be a part of his life even though he’s out there.”
“Justine summed it up,” added Malicki. “In almost every single one of her pieces, her family is evident. It may be mainly her horses and dogs, but the unique thing with her is that she does use that symbolism. It’s not just a horse, it’s her horse, and she has a whole background to it.”
He said the Thanksgiving illustration is quintessential Ocken.
“Everything on here has a reason for being there. She does that with all of her pieces. So for her to have those calendars up in family’s houses, that’s sharing a little bit of her with her family, that’s a family tradition there. I’m almost jealous I’m not in her family because I want some pieces of that in my house.”
AN ART DEPARTMENT WITH A LEGACY
Malicki’s family tree, though, comes with its own legacy and tradition. In the summer of 2012, he came home to Whitko and took over the art department developed by his father, Walter, who was retired at the end of the 2011-12 school year.
Under his dad’s direction, Whitko High School built an amazing art program for a fairly small, rural school, west of Fort Wayne.
In fact, the Cooperative Calendar of Student Art began receiving entries from Whitko in 2001, two years after the calendar began in 1999. One student won an honorable mention that year. Every year but one since, the work of at least one Whitko student has appeared in the calendar.
Ocken and Whitko freshman Cate Deckena now make it 43 works from Whitko students.
Malicki said his dad still takes an interest in the calendar art contest and is always waiting with anticipation for a call in the spring. He also noted that the ladies in the school’s office are always happy when he passes out calendars.
“They hang them up in their offices. So, these are displayed pretty much throughout all the main offices in our school. It’s a school tradition. I hold my breath every year. And I’m glad it’s happened to continue over and over, but you just never know. It makes me proud knowing, of course, my dad started that tradition and I’ve been able to continue his tradition.”
Malicki’s mother was also an art teacher. And now, his son, Mason, who’s only in second grade, says he wants to carry on and be an art teacher, too.
“He’s only 8 and has a while to figure out what else he wants to do,” said Malicki. “But in those early elementary years, they asked him what they wanted to be, and they dressed up. He dressed up as an art teacher, with blue jeans, a collared shirt, and a little kid apron. He wore an ID badge. He’s pretty cool.”
Through elementary school, Ocken had dreams of following her parents as teachers, too. Like Malicki, she wanted to be an art teacher. Now, with college just around the bend, she said she’s thinking of a double major, or a major-minor, in business and art.
“When I get out, I want to own my own studio and sell my own art,” she said.
She hasn’t decided on a school, but she said her two top choices are Indiana University-Bloomington or Ball State University. She said that after college, she would like to return to the South Whitley area to set up her shop.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Ocken said she hadn’t started work on her valedictory work yet for the 2025 Cooperative Calendar of Student Art. It’s due March 29.
She said she wasn’t exactly sure what the contest entry would be, other than the assigned month of December. But she did say one thing for certain: “I definitely will end up incorporating my family into it somehow … at least an animal or two.”
RICHARD G. BIEVER is senior editor of Indiana Connection
2024 Cooperative Calendar of Student Art Contest winners
Click here to view the artwork of the rest of the calendar contest winners.