The Girls’ School of Austin gives young girls a space to freely express their true selves.


By Cy White, Photos by Cy White

In 1996, Amy Lowrey and a group of concerned parents in the Austin community came together under a common goal: give elementary school-aged girls a real-world education. Lowrey and these parents formally united in 1999 to put their vision into action, and in 2002, The Girls’ School of Austin opened its doors. Though “door” is probably a better word. The school itself was a group of teachers educating five girls in someone’s West Austin home. These humble origins were the precursor to something remarkable. In its 20-year existence, The Girls’ School of Austin has educated 150 girls grades K through 8, with 18 students per class and the help of over 10 local organizations and charities.

On May 6, the school held its 20th annual Self-Portrait Show, a culmination of the work the students have done throughout the year. The theme of this year’s show is “Taking Flight,” a sentiment gleaned from the iconic surrealist painter Frida Kahlo: “Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.” Thus, each student’s self-portrait expressed their connection to the idea of flight, influenced by important eras of art history. “Over a three-month period, we learned, we drew and painted our self-portraits,” says art instructor Nancy Hoover.

This year’s art show is also a moment to celebrate Hoover’s last year as an instructor, as she intends to retire after a 20-year career. “It’s been a blessing to give a path, a purpose and journey for young people to follow who didn’t previously have one,” she says. “This is a bittersweet moment. It’s been my life for 20 years.”

Nancy Hoover’s self-portrait “OG of the GSA”

Walking around the studio, set up in rows of corkboard and canvas, one senses they’re experiencing something truly profound. At no older than 15 years old, all of these girls have found their inner voices through Hoover’s guidance and their own sense of wonder and curiosity. Along the walls is the 8th Grade Retrospective, where attendees are able to see the progression of artwork from the school’s graduating class, most of whom have been at Girls’ School since kindergarten. 

Hoover introduces some of the show’s amazing artists: Circe, Dede and Elsa. Circe, the youngest of the three, has an immense artistic intellect, which she displays when talking about her self-portrait entitled {Girl Like That}. “I wanted to incorporate birds and then sort of an ombre from dark to light. Then I did the ink detail to sort of bring it down to contrast. [The piece] explains how unique a person can be, that you can be whoever you want.”

Each young lady speaks about her piece with enthusiasm. While they certainly speak with pride about their work, there’s an undeniable brightness to their tones when they delve into what the school has done to shape them. “You can speak for yourself,” Circe says. “Nobody else can speak for you, and you decide what you want to be.”

Elsa, who’s been at the Girls’ School since kindergarten and is now in the sixth grade, found a deeper appreciation for others. “This school has helped me learn about the importance of others’ values,” she says. “I would always play with the older kids in my class, and that helped me learn that everyone is equal. It helped me to learn that there are other people than me.”

Two graduating students, Dede and Delilah, have wisdom beyond their years. Before her short tenure at the Girls’ School (having entered in seventh grade, she’s one of the rare cases of a student joining later in their education), Dede was self-conscious about her natural hair. The love and support of her parents, as well as her ability to fully express herself in the art program, broke her out of that insecurity, inspiring her intriguing piece Sunflower Euphoria and allowing her to look toward the future. Her advice to those following in her footsteps rings true to her experience. “Just keep going,” she says. “Just keep moving forward. You’re gonna get to a point where you probably shift focus, and that’s fine for a period of time. But I really think that you should stick with something that you’re passionate about.”

Delilah, a young artist whose time at the Girls’ School has allowed her to bloom into her true artistry, knows what it means to be constantly on a journey of evolution. Working with everything from acrylics to fabrics, she found her voice in her darkest period, resulting in the piece Under The Surface. “Sixth grade was probably the worst year of my life,” she reveals. “I was not really in my best state of the world, so this was kind of symbolic of that.” From darkness to unparalleled effervescence, she also showcases her seventh grade piece, {Without a Net}. “This was a photo of me actually from fourth grade,” she says. “We kind of created this whole metaphor of [flying]without a net, kind of going through life without safety.” Delilah’s work really leans into small moments of purity (whether pure sadness or pure elation) that inspire her to put brush to canvas. “Find the things that bring you joy and get inspiration from it, so that you enjoy everything that you do.”

Each young lady is articulate, passionate and has a sense of self that many adults still have a hard time defining. Nancy Hoover’s remarkable art program has allowed every student to find focus, and most importantly, in this era of their lives, their most authentic selves.

There’s a brilliant fearlessness in each young lady. It’s a snapshot (or portrait) of what young people can become and accomplish in this “post”-COVID world. These kids had to navigate their futures in a world that’s on fire. With Mrs. Hoover’s guidance, they’ve been able to imagine a future that’s full of promise.



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