Still Life Meets Real LifeAbigail Olson opens up about what it’s like to be a Messianic Jewish student at one of the most prestigious art high schools in the country
Abigail Olson isn’t the kind of teenager who strikes you as a prodigy. Unlike your average New Yorker, she gives a first impression of being a quiet, modest and polite young woman. The oldest of five children of Jews for Jesus missionaries Amer and Paige Olson (both acclaimed artists in their own right), Abigail almost seems to be from a different era. Case in point: her Instagram feed has no selfies, just self-portraits.
The fact is, Abigail Olson is one of the most promising young artists in the country. In 2015, she was a Gold Key Recipient of the New York City Scholastic Art Awards, the longest-running and most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in the United States. Not only did Abigail join a jaw-dropping roster of past winners, including Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote, but her winning work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Directly below her still life, displayed in one of the most visited art museums in the world, a biographical placard read simply: “Abigail Olson, age 13, homeschooled.”
Not long after receiving this major recognition of her artistic talent, Abigail’s years of being a homeschooler came to an end. With counsel and encouragement from her parents, she decided to audition for two highly competitive art schools. Unsurprisingly, she got offers from both, and now Abigail attends Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts near Lincoln Center, aka the high school in the movie Fame.
Some people say that teenagers are the most misunderstood people on the planet. Now add to that being a teenager at one the most exclusive and prestigious arts high schools in the country. Then add to that being a Jewish believer in Jesus at a very Jewish school—the pressure is off the charts. But despite her reserved demeanor, Abigail assured us that she can hold her own at LaGuardia High School.
Havurah: Abigail, you go to one of the most famous arts high schools in the country, with alumni such as Jennifer Aniston and Nicki Minaj. Can you tell our Havurah readers a bit about what that’s like?
Abigail: There are some moments where I am blown away by the talent of my peers. Whenever I get to see previews of plays or performances by the drama, instrumental, vocal and dance studios, I feel a bit awestruck. I’m going to high school with THESE people? Wow! Sometimes I wonder if my classmates will grow into big stars and celebrities that I can say one day, I went to school with! It’s an honor to go here and, though I have my ups and downs day to day, I am constantly reminded every morning as I walk through the hallways lined with art of how amazing my school is.
H: I’m sure some of them are thinking the same thing about you. What’s it like being a Jewish believer in Jesus at such a unique school?
A: New York City has a high concentration of Jewish people and I find many at my school. Almost all the girls at my lunch table are Jewish. Despite this, I feel that most students at LaGuardia are not religious in any way. I am very grateful for Christian Club since it is all too easy to feel alone and different at a school as large and diverse as mine.
Even though my school culture seems at first to be very accepting of unique world views, it takes a little courage for me to say that I am a believer in Jesus. It’s funny how today most people disapprove of stereotypes but still hold prejudices against people like me, who hold biblical beliefs. I try to keep my head up and not be too timid. I wear a Jews for Jesus pin on my backpack that has drawn some reactions from both students and teachers!
H: Whoa, that’s great. What kind of reactions do you get?
A: To my pleasant surprise, most who ask me about it either think it’s pretty cool, even seeming curious, or they are a bit confused. After I explain what I believe, most people don’t really want to go very far into it and try not to bring it up anymore. I suppose either they are not that interested or they might not want to be nosey.
There was one time at lunch when I set my backpack on my lap to get my lunch out. A Jewish girl I know saw my JFJ pin and exploded with, “Jews for JESUS??? Why… Why?” I explained to her what Jews for Jesus is and that I’m a Jewish person who believes Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. “Except he’s not…” was her reply. I was caught off guard, but I hope that our conversation made an impression and caused her to think.
H: Do you feel free to express yourself as an artist in the environment that you are in?
A: I think I am even better able to convey my beliefs through art and writing than I am through talking. Art takes the personal factor out of the equation so that the pure idea is what is being presented, and someone’s predispositions and assumptions have less control over how they react to that idea. I feel much more liberated in what I can say through my art than what I can express vocally.
Going through the creative process also helps me sort through what I want to say and gives me insight into what others might think. I love drawing people and, in the way I portray them, I hope I draw out their true character and perhaps even their spiritual circumstances.
H: Your high school is famous—or infamous—for being extremely competitive and for having a very high-stress environment. How do you see your faith at work in this environment?
A: The struggle is REAL at LaGuardia. I think most students here are overstressed and overtired. Most of us have eight-hour school days, plus clubs and after school activities, long commutes, tons of homework and many friends. Many people here will greet each other by saying things like, “I have sooooooo much homework!”
When I get busy and stressed out, I continually need to remember to trust that everything that is happening will be worked out for the best, and that God will help me through the many exams, essays and train delays ahead of me. At the end of the day, I look back and realize that God was using even the little problems to get me to where I needed to go.
H: Any final words for our Havurah readers?
A: I hope that some of you will pray for LaGuardia, that there will be a growth in faith and hope here. Pray for those students who are confused and mistaken, those broken and calloused, and those who are struggling with their identity. And finally, pray for those of us who are here as witnesses to God’s Word—that we would grow in our walk with Yeshua and perhaps bring others along with us!