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Senior Spotlight: Ashley Gruwell’s Eyes Lead to Prizes, Future 

Each year, artists from around ISD 728’s three traditional high schools submit works via the National Scholastic Arts competition, aiming for success and, hopefully, a trip to the Big Apple. 

In past years, students from all three schools have earned “Gold Key” honors, and landed works in local shops in museums. 

This year, Zimmerman senior Ashley Gruwell joined that elite group, becoming just the first senior to win two Gold Key Awards and represent the Thunder at the state and (possibly) national levels. 

But for Gruwell, the accolades didn’t stop there. Her drawing of someone grabbing a midnight snack at the family refrigerator - a study in shade, light and perspective - earned her awards at the District level (her art will hang in the District Office in Elk River through 2024) and the annual Granite Ridge Conference Art Awards, where she was honored as an outstanding senior. Her self-portrait - lying in shallow water a la "Ophelia" - was also an award-winner for the senior. 

In Zimmerman’s final year in the conference, it was appropriate that one of its finest artists take home the honor. 

“I think my love for the arts really started in elementary school,” Ashley said. “In class, out of class, projects - I was always drawing. More than the other kids. I would sit down for hours.” 

She said her hobby - drawing - turned into a serious pursuit in middle school when she did a colored pencil drawing. She knew in eighth grade art would be a major part of her high school curriculum, and instructor Emily Zahn at ZHS recognized the talent immediately. 

“It wasn’t hard to get her going on a project. It was a matter of her focusing on each piece and bringing it to a finish. Once she does that, it’s truly great work,” Zahn said. “She’s had success this year - and throughout high school - because she has that love for it.” 

Gruwell said ISD 728’s curriculum allowed her to explore many different media, from drawing and painting to sculpture and pottery. Even photography played a role, with pictures becoming inspiration for works. 

“Our curriculum gives us guidelines, but what’s awesome is our teachers take that curriculum and then give us the freedom to explore and take creative control of our projects. So that relationship and trust that the teachers have in us is great - it helps you grow,” Ashley said. “That feeling that you don’t have to meet a certain standard, but meet a criteria of things - that’s helpful.” 

Creating students who find their path and give to their community on a local and global level - that’s part of ISD 728’s mission statement. For Ashley, the proof has been evident in her journey. 

“As an artist, to have that support from someone like Ms. [Emily] Zahn is something that means so much. It keeps you going,” she said. “And through this I’ve been able to see the talent in Minnesota - through shows and competitions. That’s really interesting. You don’t think of this area having such talent - you go and see exhibits at museums and it’s people from other places and all over the world. But we have so much talent here in our backyard.” 


Ashley Gruwell