By Kalli Colacino
When Nickelodeon producers reached out to sophomore Mia Tomasino with an offer to have her work featured on TV, she knew it was an opportunity she could not pass up.
The sophomore art education major specializes in colored pencil portraits. So when the producers told her they needed paintings on canvas, Tomasino was a little wary.
“I had one painting I had ever done in my life, and it was not on canvas and was not of a person,” she said. “It was of shoes.”
In a partnership with Time Magazine, Nickelodeon named the first Kid of the Year in 2020 — a spin on Time’s annual Person of the Year.
Time Magazine and Nickelodeon searched for “extraordinary kids who are making a positive impact on society,” according to Nickelodeon’s website. Out of more than 5,000 Americans ages 8 to 16, five finalists were selected to participate in the television special on Nickelodeon.
When producers saw Tomasino’s artwork on tour with NJTeenMedia, they reached out via LinkedIn and Instagram, asking if she would be interested in painting portraits of the five finalists for the Kid of the Year event.
“My first reaction was ‘this has to be fake, this is crazy. Like what?’” she said. “But once I started talking to them, I knew it wasn’t just a random person trying to scam me.”
At first, Tomasino questioned whether she should take the offer. When the producer reached out in September of 2020, the fall semester was just starting up, and she was worried it would be too much to take on the project while keeping up with her schoolwork. But she knew she would regret it if she did not take the opportunity, so she agreed to paint the portraits.
“They wanted five portraits done in a two-week period, which is impossible,” said Tomasino. “They allowed me to bring in another artist from my hometown, so it was the two of us who worked on them.”
So, with the help of a fellow Piscataway High School graduate, Tomasino began working on the portraits in her backyard.
“I devoted my entire day to it, [the portraits] each day,” she said. “Each one took about four days. I’d say about 20 hours per portrait.”
Since the paintings were time consuming, Tomasino said she would paint any chance she got — even while watching class videos. Any free time she had went directly to working on the paintings or to her schoolwork, and she was “always multitasking.” During breaks in her six-hour art class, she would use the time to work on the paintings.
“I definitely say it was worth it,” said Tomasino. “I’m happy that I stuck with it and pushed myself. I’ve formed new connections and people have been really interested in art that haven’t been before.”
The student always knew she had a passion for art — even before she attended school. “The second I could pick up a pencil, I drew. Always,” she said.
Typically, Tomasino prefers colored pencil drawings, but with the help of the Kid of the Year paintings, she has started to branch out. She’s developed an interest in painting that she never had before. Her art career took off in high school, where she had an art teacher — Dorothy Amme — who helped her see how important art is.
“My teacher really helped me to see that art is more than just creating something pretty,” said Tomasino. “I’m showing the world how I see the world.”
She credits her teacher for not only helping her improve as an artist, but making her realize that she wants to help people learn about art too. When she was accepted to the College, she chose to major in art education and aspires to be an art teacher.
“I want to help future students to be able to show the world how they interpret things and how they see things,” she said. “I want to help them to gain the opportunities that I’ve had.”
Along with her high school art teacher, Tomasino credits her Video ? professor, Liselot Van Der Heijden, for opening her eyes to new ideas. At first Van Der Heijden’s class intimidated her, but Tomasino quickly realized that she can show how she sees the world through film as well.
“She really encouraged me to go beyond. She told me to push it, and I did,” Tomasino said. “That mindset helped me to complete this project [the Kid of the Year portraits] because I know it’s intimidating, but I just remembered that I’ve gone out of my comfort zone and had success before, so why can’t I do it again?”
Professor Van Der Heijden said she was “very pleased” to see Tomasino’s success with the portraits.
“Mia is a very talented student who works very hard and really pushes herself and her artwork to new levels,” Van Der Heijden said in an email interview. “She is also truly thoughtful and generous to others and invested in important issues such as diversity.”
Amme, Tomasino’s high school art teacher, was the one who encouraged her to submit a self portrait to NJTeenMedia. This drawing was the colored-pencil portrait that piqued the interest of the producers at Nickelodeon.
“When they came up with the idea of wanting portraits, they wanted somebody that was younger because it’s for a younger audience,” said Tomasino. “They looked at the teen media festival since all the artists there are teenagers.”
Portraits have been a large part of Tomasino’s art style. Through portraits, she’s able to have an emotional connection to her subjects and even bond with that person, she said.
“When I’m painting or drawing an object, yes, I’m recreating what I see and interpreting it in my way, which is great, but when I’m seeing a person, I try to capture their essence,” she said. “I feel I know them.”
The connection she makes with the people she draws goes beyond typical art making to her. She said she’s able to capture her subject’s personality through her work.
“I did a portrait of a CEO and the first thing I noticed about him was he had very kind eyes,” said Tomasino. “I visualize how I want my subject to come across in my portraits. I’m able to look at them, study them, and it goes beyond their face. It’s an emotional connection.”
The thing that Tomasino really loves about portraits is emotion. She said there’s no emotion in a still-life painting, but there’s so much emotion in faces — even if it’s a blank face.
“I’m bringing out what I think is beautiful that other people may not see, because I see beauty in everything,” she said.
Typically, art enthusiasts are the ones who see Tomasino’s work at events such as festivals and museums. But for the Kid of the Year project, her work was featured on TV, alongside the host of the event, Trevor Noah. Since her artwork was on TV, anybody was able to see it. She said it was a great experience to know she had such a variety of people viewing her work.
As a future educator, Tomasino looks forward to sharing her experiences with future students.
“People reached out to me and asked me for tips, and I love giving advice. People will send me their drawings and ask me what they can do to improve them,” she said. “I’m going to be an art teacher, that’s my thing, so it’s great that there’s more exposure.”
In the meantime, Tomasino is experimenting with different mediums — including painting.
“I think she has great potential as an artist and art educator and I am so happy to see her and her work flourish,” said Van Der Heijden.