Photo by Kamal Moon

Aida El-Hajjar, 14, of Milwaukee stands next to “Seeking Asylum; Seeking Humanity,” one of her Scholastic Art Award Gold Key winners. “I was striving to capture both hope and fear,” she said.

University School of Milwaukee 9th grader Aida El-Hajjar’s showing at the annual Scholastic Art Awards Wisconsin Exhibition may be a national record for regional wins. No one knows for sure. 

The Scholastic Art Awards: Wisconsin Exhibition honors original and innovative artwork by students in grades 7 – 12 from across Wisconsin. Top award winners in this juried contest later compete nationally for college scholarships. The respected competition has become a benchmark of excellence for students. 

El-Hajjar won 25 Scholastic Art Awards, including seven Gold Keys in digital art, drawing/illustration and painting; eight Silver Keys in drawing/illustration and 10 Honorable Mentions in digital art, drawing/illustration, editorial cartoon and painting). 

Her seven Gold Key artworks advance to New York to be judged for national Silver and Gold Medals. Results will be announced later this spring. Meanwhile, 15 of her pieces are on display at the nationally acclaimed Milwaukee Art Museum until April 7.

Photo by Kamal Moon

 A news interview of a Palestinian in Gaza inspired Aida El-Hajjar’s “The Soundscapes of Genocide,” a Gold Key winner. “They keep hearing the sound of bombs … while in their head all they can see is a city being burned,” she said.

The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the nonprofit that presents the awards, “does not have statistical data related to the top number of awards ever received, or that compares students,” wrote Allyson Barkan from Scholastic Inc.’s Corporate Communications last week in an email to Wisconsin Muslim Journal. “Students have the option of submitting multiple works and/or to multiple categories, and in doing so there have been students throughout the program’s history who have received multiple awards. 

“I can however say that even receiving one award is a remarkable achievement and newsworthy, let alone multiple awards,” she added.

More important than the 14-year-old’s number of wins is the depth of reflection she brings to current events. “Many of her art pieces are related to Palestine, so there’s lots of potential for building awareness,” said her mother Marcia Mihdawi of Milwaukee. 

Photo by Kamal Moon

Aida El-Hajjar, 14, a freshman at University School of Milwaukee, won a Silver Key for “She is Watching Humanity.”

“I’m the granddaughter of 1948 refugees so that definitely affects the art I create and like,” El-Hajjar said. “Some of my work pertains to the refugee experience of Palestinians and other refugees worldwide.” 

El-Hajjar processes what she sees on the news and learns about the world through her art, she explained. In capturing an issue on a canvas, she creates clarity about it for herself and a means to share her perspectives with others.

Other pieces she submitted to the competition address themes as varied as psychological stress caused by societal expectations, “the toxic impact of social media,” war, prejudice and “ethical compromises inherent in the pursuit of capital gains.”  

In the description of her painting depicting a predator, El-Hajjar wrote, “It’s about a horrible truth that exists in our society and yet it is still very taboo to talk about. As Mexican poet Cesar Cruz said, ‘Art should disturb the comforted and comfort the disturbed.’ I hope this piece disturbs you.”

See El-Hajjar’s work in her online gallery here.

Photo by Sandra Whitehead

Aida El Hajjar (left) looks happy to see her older sister Raya at the Wisconsin Scholastic Art Awards Exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibit is on display until April 7.

Exceptional results

The Scholastic Art Awards program has been conducted by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers for over 100 years,” Milwaukee Art Museum Barbara Brown Lee Senior Director of Learning and Engagement Amy Kirschke told a packed house in the Lubar Auditorium, which seats 265, in the first of five award ceremonies Saturday, March 2. (About 1,200 people attended the ceremonies, a MAM spokesperson reported.)

“It’s been operated nationally for 100 years to recognize and nurture emerging artists. The Milwaukee Art Museum has hosted the Scholastic Art Awards Wisconsin Art Region since 1976.”

“It is a highly competitive and important art competition,” Kirschke continued. “Teen artists here with us today, you are joining generations of esteemed Scholastic Art Awards winners … We have Scholastic Art alum like Harry Bertoia, Robert Indiana, Cy Twombly, John Wilde and Andy Warhol in our own collection.”

Photo by Kamal Moon

Silver Key winner “A Faustian Bargain” by Aida El-Hajjar explores the connection between wealth and greed, she said.

This year the Wisconsin Region of the Scholastic Art Awards received 2,776 entries across 16 media categories. Of those, 857 awards were granted. Jurors evaluate each work on three criteria: originality, technical skill, and the emergence of personal voice or vision.

Artwork was judged solely on its merit in an anonymous adjudication process. “That is a very important core value of Scholastic,” she said. “When the jurors look at your work, they cannot see who you are, your name, your age, your school or any other personal information.”

When the first ceremony ended, a WMJ reporter went stage side where Kirschke talked with Peter and Deborah Johnson, who represented one of the sponsors, the Heller Foundation. The Johnsons had distributed the Gold and Silver Keys to the winners. 

Photo by Kamal Moon

“Just human … and you?” won the Wisconsin Pastel Artists Award and a Gold Key Scholastic Art Award.


“How significant is it that Aida El-Hajjar won 25 awards?” she asked Kirschke, who has been involved with the awards program for 21 years.

“We’ve been hosting since 1976 and I’d say it’s definitely a very high number in our history.” She noted the level of artwork “only continues to evolve. It only gets better and better. Teens today are really responding to the world around us. 

“I want to emphasize, it can’t just be technical skill, and we are seeing outstanding technical skill. It’s also originality and the emergence of a personal vision or voice.

“We see work from students in 7th to 12th grade. So the student you are asking about?”

“She’s in 9th grade.”

“9th grade? That’s incredible. Yeah, incredible. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen that many awards. That’s really a huge, emerging talent, and with three years to go.”

“I remember her from last year,” volunteered Basil Beyreis-Heim, the Scholastic assistant for MAM’s Wisconsin Art Region team. “She had a number of Gold and Silver awards last year in 8th grade. I can still remember them. She was really good right out the gate.”

How exceptional were El-Hajjar’s results at the Wisconsin Region’s Scholastic Art Awards? 

Consider this. Wauwatosa East High School did very well, with 50 students receiving awards. Among them, they won seven Gold Keys, a feat El-Hajjar did alone. They also won 14 Silver Keys and 29 Honorable Mentions.

Her school also did very well. University School of Milwaukee, 25 Upper School students won 64 individual awards, with El-Hajjar winning 25 of them. 

Beyond talent

El-Hajjar’s art teacher, USM Art Department Chair Jessica Michels, doesn’t use the word “talent” about her students. “I’m not a firm believer in talent,” she said in an interview last week. “This is really about her drive and her thoughtfulness with her abilities. at her age. Her work shows a sense of purpose.

“I believe in skill and, man, does she have skill! She is eager to take critique, which is unusual. She works really hard at what she’s doing. She’s always eager to learn and improve. She’s constantly creating. This is only the beginning of what she is capable of.”

In 8th grade, El-Hajjar’s first year in the competition, she won 12 Scholastic Art Awards. This year she more than doubled it, Michels noted. “Winning 12 awards in 8th grade is unheard of,” she added.

El-Hajjar’s work and support from her family have contributed, she said.  “I met her last year with a middle school teacher who was looking to submit some of her work. I saw it and thought, ‘Wow, these are awesome, especially for an 8th grader who’s pretty much self-taught. During the pandemic, she was soaking up a lot of stuff from the internet, drawing, painting and trying different techniques. 

More impressive than her results, is El-Hajjar’s character, Michels said.

Photo by Kamal Moon

University School of Milwaukee Art Department Chair Jessica Michels (left) and Aida El-Hajjar, 14, flank portraits El-Hajjar created.

Michels, who is also El-Hajjar’s advisor, described her as “a ray of sunshine. She’s outgoing. She’s very kind. When she has a job to do, she does what she needs to do. I’m always proud of her and the decisions she makes.”

When “we all found out how many awards Aida won, she handled it with such grace,” Michels said. “She was very humble and happy for other winners she could celebrate.

Space to be creative

El-Hajjar discovered her passion for art during the pandemic, she said in a Zoom interview that included her mother Marcia Mihdawi. An educator herself, Mihdawi decided to homeschool Aida when, during Aida’s 6th-grade year, she learned Milwaukee Public Schools, where she was enrolled at the time, would be moving to all virtual. “I didn’t think being on a screen would be a healthy thing for my 12-year-old.”

Photo by Kamal Moon

Aida El-Hajjar (right) with her mother Marcia Mihdawi

“I think it had a huge influence on her,” Mihdawi said. “It offered Aida and her twin brother a chance to have an infinite amount of time to create. We’d do vocabulary, biology lessons and whatever, then she would have plenty of time to do what she was interested in, which was art.”

Another major influence is the family’s value in “understanding Middle Eastern history from a non-Western lens,” Mihdawi said. “She gets an earful at every dinner table conversation.”

“Whenever I can, I will draw or paint or create something,’ El-Hajjar said. “I want to express myself.”

It started with sketching in a sketchbook just to pass the time. “Then I realized, I love this!”

She did a lot of portraits. As part of their home-schooling, Mihdawi required them to do a Capstone Project where they connected their interests to a need in the world, El-Hajjar said. “I thought about how I couldn’t see my own grandparents.” She decided to draw elderly residents at the Milwaukee Catholic Home who couldn’t see their families.

“Art helps me understand the world,” El-Hajjar said. “I process what I see in the news and in the world around me, like what’s happening in Gaza. I hope other people understand it, too.”

Three Palestine-themed artworks—”Are Teddy and I collateral damage too?;” “They can’t fence us in;” and “Palestine is not for Sale”—are among 10 Honorable Mentions Aida El-Hajjar won at the 2024 Wisconsin Scholastic Art Awards. Her artwork was also featured at the recent Art Showcase for Palestine in Milwaukee.