More than 2 million people go to San Antonio's Rodeo each year to watch bucking broncos, thrill to carnival rides and hear live music. But each year there's also a contest that quietly recognizes talents that don't require a saddle or throwing a lariat. It’s called the Student Western Art Contest.
The Rodeo's Diana Turner has beeen involved with this contest for its entire 24-year run — which is only open for high school students.
"They can be in public school or home school environment. But they do have to be in high school," she said.
The contest recognizes artistic talent, and turns that talent into scholarship money for winning students' college education.
"This year we gave away 17 scholarships totaling $90,000 ," Turner said.
To enter, artists have to create content honoring western heritage, in its many iterations. Hundreds do.
"Last year we had about 400. And to this year I think we had 360," she said.
Best of show winners have traditionally been paintings and drawings, but that tradition was broken in 2018.
"Last year, the first year we've ever had a sculpture piece win best of show," she said.
And that break with tradition continued this year.
"And then we had it two years in a row,” Turner said. “The same student. Very talented student."
Brenna Richardson is that student, and she says she was shocked to be chosen last year.
“They pulled me aside. They said this is the first time in 23 years that we've chosen a sculpture to win,” Richardson said. “So I felt very honored to hold that title."
The 17-year-old from New Braunfels has only entered into art contests four times, at which she's won four awards, the least of which was second place.
"I almost don't feel worthy: 'You pick my piece?'" she said.
She described last year's entry, which was called Flow. Except for its wooden base, the creation was made entirely of clay.
"Horses kind of running down a hill in sort of a river and down at the end, the horses themselves are liquefying and becoming part of the river," she said.
Her father Mike Richardson recalls how the producer of Houston's young artists contests saw Flow beforehand.
"John Gunn, when he saw what was on that table, he just said, 'You get her to the show. This girl's got something!'" he said.
Apparently she does. And Richardson said she doesn't get creativity from him.
"I'm an investment advisor, so I'm on the other side. I don't have the creative gene," he said.
He said that she took to working in clay early on, and that it was a natural fit.
"It almost like spills out of her,” Richardson explained. “Her classmates in this gallery are just astounded that in two hours she can have a working study of something that just takes your breath away."
That Gallery where she sculpts is the New Braunfels Art League downtown. She said it’s a great fit for her.
"I've been taking lessons under Trace Guthrie for going on three years now. And it's really changed everything,” she said. “What I really like about Trace is he tells everyone, you're the pilot. I'm just here to help."
“She's a real firecracker,” said Guthrie. "She thinks visually and she can really see what she's doing. She just has an eye. She's got a real good eye."
She trained that eye on this year's Student Western Art Contest. And like last year's entry she chose an action shot, also featuring a horse.
"Horses are hilarious. They decide, ‘Oh, this rock looks scary!’ And they spook. They jump backwards,” Richardson said. “And you have this horrible moment of fear and then you try to collect yourself and calm each other down. But I wanted to try and capture that moment."
And capture it she did in her piece, called Spooked. She added a jackrabbit to it, which caused the spook. She could have created a tranquil scene with a horse, but the implied movement and drama makes a horse being spooked more interesting.
"Absolutely. It's more visually stimulating and interesting,” she said.
And like last year, she also won best of show. Diana Turner notes that she sees improvement, year-to-year.
"As good as her piece was last year, I can see an improvement this year,” she said. “I think she's very talented. I think she's gonna go a long ways."
Trace Guthrie is of the same mind.
"Brenna is a joy to be with. Can't wait to see what she's going to do next," he said.
And that's the question: what’s next? Her father delivers a reality check.
"She's got to finish high school. We got to do SATs, we got to get college prep going. We got all those things,” he said. “So, she's busy and she'll stay busy as long as she wants to do it. If she's passionate about it."
Richardson herself is humbled by the possibilities.
"I have no idea what the future holds for me," she said.
One thing for sure, though: college, a good chunk of which will already be paid for because of the scholarships.
"We just looked at Texas State and St. Edward’s University. I think I'd want to stay in Texas and be close to home,” she said.
She has concerns about the unsure world of professional art. But it also has quite an allure.
“Despite all the issues, I want to try to make a career out of it," she said.
And unlike most college art students she already has commission work — a waiting list of people ready to pay her for her sculptures.