The Next Generation: Young Artists in the Finger Lakes

"Phase," an orca-themed painting by Eliejha Montanez, spray paint and acrylic on a 48”x25” canvas
by Nancy E. McCarthy

Now, more than ever, art is a comforting refuge from daily stresses and news headlines. Art can also provoke strong feelings that reflect societal change and spark important conversations. For both artist and viewer, artistic expression provides a visual linkage to explore the differences and commonalities of the human experience.

The Finger Lakes Region has a rich and vibrant art scene continually bolstered by young emerging artists coming up the ranks, full of fresh ideas, energy and a desire to create. Meet five talented makers sharing their stories as they joyfully embrace their professional lives as working artists.

They are already leaving their mark on their local communities and beyond.


Eliejha Montanez

Rochester muralist Eliejha (“Eli”) Montanez, 20, comes from an artistic family and loved making art from a young age. His career goal is to be a professional artist. Montanez got hooked on painting large works in high school while attending the School of the Arts and participating in Roc Paint Division, the City of Rochester’s Youth Mural Arts Program. Its mission is “to beautify the city’s Rec Centers through mural arts while providing employment and training opportunities to young developing artists.”

Muralists Sarah C. Rutherford, Justin Suarez and Brittany Williams run the program and mentor the student artists. In summer 2020, after three seasons of participating in group mural projects, Montanez was awarded a local WALL\THERAPY grant to design and paint his first solo mural. The element-themed Circle of Life illustrates respect for our planet and was painted on the exterior walls of Roc Paint’s home base in Rochester. His artwork often promotes environmental conservation.

Montanez, who works in acrylic, oil and airbrushing techniques, is influenced by the style of Los Angeles muralist/illustrator Matt Dean (aka “Kiptoe”) and his Roc Paint mentors. Montanez lived in Florida for part of his childhood surrounded by exotic birds which appear frequently in his work. “Eli shares many of the same passions that I do when it comes to his artwork. We definitely hit it off right off the bat with our mutual appreciation for birds!” says Suarez, who often paints birds of prey.

Before Roc Paint, Montanez painted realistic landscapes. He has now developed his own unique style, leaving photorealism behind. Montanez uses a monochromatic color scheme (different variations of the same color), adding in one different color to balance out the painting. “I want my viewers to be affected by the subtle colors that I use in my paintings and make them feel how I feel,” he says.

Roc Paint artists are high schoolers who eventually age out of the program. But Montanez and another participant, Francheska Diaz, stayed on in paid year-round rec assistant positions designed specifically for them. They create public art for the City of Rochester while building on their artistic skills
and learning what it takes to be a working artist.

After participating in several student art exhibits in the past, Montanez has been invited to submit work for an upcoming out-of-state group exhibition.  He is currently working on animal-themed paintings for the show.

“It excites me how driven he is to develop his skills and he produces work at an astounding rate,” says Suarez. “I have no doubt Eli has an incredibly bright future.”

Contact Montanez at free.lncr.2001@ Follow him on Instagram @ free_lncr.


Jenna Girolamo

Rochester artist Jenna (“JTG”) Girolamo, 23, is a 2020 Nazareth College graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art. She was a crafty kid and explored various mediums in high school but got serious about art as a profession in college. “I always knew I was going to be an artist. Without really giving anything else a second thought, it just made sense,” says Girolamo.

Girolamo received several awards during her college years including Nazareth College Student of The Year in Studio Art 2019-2020. Although her interests include drawing, film photography and printmaking, her main concentration is abstract painting. Mediums include acrylic paint, soft pastel, spray paint and oil sticks. While still in college, Girolamo sold her first painting to a friend’s mother.

The artists who inspire Girolamo include iconic pop artist Keith Haring, abstract painter Julie Mehretu, known for large, layered works, and abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. “The first time I saw a de Kooning (painting) in person, it brought me to tears - the markings and the colors, it was what I was doing on my canvas, but someone had also experienced the same. It was the emotion of being understood,”
she says. 

Girolamo’s painting process is an exploration. Applications to the canvas may include scraped layers, saturated colors and water. Shapes and lines are confronted, challenged and pushed toward a completed painting. “It is the visibility of each step and the patience that is needed to give each layer time to settle into its environment. It is with distance you are able to appreciate where it is coming from,” she writes in her artist’s statement. 

“Jenna’s work is full of color and life,” says fine artist Siena Pullinzi who shares a rented studio space with Girolamo.

In August Girolamo’s work was part of “Out of the Schoolhouse,” an emerging artists exhibition sponsored by the Ontario County Arts Council. Undoubtedly, this exhibit is one of more to come. In the interim, stop in to see Girolamo’s work in her studio on the first Friday of every month. Open studio hours are from 5-9PM at the Hungerford Building, Studio 420, in Rochester.

Visit Contact Girolamo at Follow her on Instagram @JGArtBuzz


Jason Thiel

Jason (“JT”) Thiel, 18, is a 2021 graduate of Horseheads High School and attends SUNY Corning Community College pursuing a business degree. Photography is his main career goal. Thiel is new to the art of photography but already working professionally and garnering awards.

Thiel’s interest began as a high school junior when he bought a camera to photograph a small clothing line he designed. Apparel fell by the wayside when he fell in love with photography.

Using a Canon EOS RP camera, Thiel edits his photos with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Main subjects are evenly split between nature and portraits. Thiel credits his cousin Kyle Nickerson, a photography hobbyist, with helping him to develop skills and techniques. He also watches Peter McKinnon tutorials on the photographer/filmmaker’s YouTube channel and is influenced by photographer Alen Palander’s style. Both pros are Toronto-based.

Thiel launched his website in 2020. “My first paying client was my friend Nolan who paid me $10 for a simple photoshoot in Elmira,” he says. It was a decidedly modest start but opportunities have definitely progressed from there. Over the summer, Thiel was hired to shoot a family reunion and is busy framing photos to sell online. He also plans to self-publish a book of upstate New York nature photos with an emphasis on the Finger Lakes Region’s state parks.

And then there are the awards. Thiel entered the 2021 Scholastic Art & Writing competition and won the prestigious Gold Key award for “Alone,” a portrait shot, and an honorable mention for “Sunrise Motivation,” a nature photo. Both works were later included in an Arnot Art Museum exhibit in Elmira.

Later this year, Thiel’s “Adirondack Magic” photograph was a finalist in Congressmen Tom Reed’s annual Congressional Art Competition. “We care about the importance of arts for students, and this competition is just one way we can encourage and support the next generation of artists,” says Reed. Thiel’s photograph hangs in Reed’s Washington, District of Columbia office for a year.

“The art I make is to cherish memories and to get a different view on the world,” says Thiel. “I want to share this view with people, that way people can see how beautiful the world around them is.”

Visit Contact Thiel at Follow him on Instagram @Jasonathiel.


Aubrey Hill

Aubrey Hill of Hammondsport, 22, graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2021. Throughout college she waffled between professional goals: artist or art teacher? She’s decided to do both. Her career path is art education but Hill will continue to create her own art.

In spring 2020, when Hill was still an undergraduate, she snagged her first big art sale. An RIT alumnus contacted the school looking to commission a student artist to paint his deceased mother’s portrait.

He selected Hill.

This past summer Hill worked as a direct support person at the ARC of Monroe Community Arts Connection which provides arts offerings for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This fall, Hill returned to RIT to pursue a Master of Science for Teachers degree, an accelerated one year program focusing on visual arts and encompassing art education for all grades. “After I graduate I would like to either teach art at the ARC or at a school,” says Hill.

The artist works in a variety of media and styles ranging from realism to abstraction. While her main focus is oil painting, printmaking and drawing, she also makes sculpture and pottery. Hill is deaf and cochlear implants help her to hear along with lip reading to fill in the gaps (pandemic mask-wearing presents a stumbling block). Some of her work themes explore the communication barriers between the deaf and hearing world. 

While she admires the work of contemporary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (“Her use of dots and colors astounds me.”), Hill’s main inspiration is local artist Gina Pfleegor. Pfleegor was her Hammondsport High School teacher, a fine artist represented by West End Gallery in Corning.

“Aubrey was always such a talented and truly delightful young art student, I just knew she’d be a successful artist one day,” says Pfleegor. “She never shied away from a challenge, whether it was related to her disability or trying to master a new drawing technique. Aubrey’s attitude has always been “I can!” and she certainly does.” Contact Hill at Follow her on Instagram @ahillrit.


Rachael Derby

Rachael (“Cat”) Derby graduated as Hammondsport High School’s class valedictorian in 2018. Derby, 21, attends Cazenovia College and is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications. She anticipates a spring 2022 graduation. Derby’s professional focus is on graphic design and marketing in a business environment.

Derby got a head start on that path when, at age 12, she started sculpting miniature polymer clay charms, jewelry and figurines finely detailed with acrylic paints. At first, she gave these tiny treasures away as gifts to friends and family and then unintentionally made her first sale. A friend’s sister had asked Derby to make a hedgehog statue and sent her $5 as a thank you. In 2015, Derby, 15, had amassed an inventory and started Meow Charms, her own Etsy store of ready-made items. To date, she has made about 200 sales, has a 5-star business rating and customers across New York, throughout the United States and Canada and as far away as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. She also creates special custom orders. 

Repeat client Chance Catucci of Mahopac, New York, discovered Derby’s work through a mutual friend. He’s commissioned a wide range of custom pieces for friends and family. “The past few years I’ve given people in my life hand-crafted models of their dogs,” says Catucci. Some of the recipients cried happy tears. “Not only are these pieces amazing memories, but Rachael also takes extreme care to make them as accurate as possible to the reference pictures I send her.”

Artists who inspire Derby’s sculpting work include Bori Gheorghita from The Woods of Wonder, Greta Gruzdaitytė from Dzy Dzy Design, and Amba Jacobs from The Little Mew. “I not only admire their incredible and unique sculpting and designing skills, but also their photography, marketing, and use of design in their businesses,” says Derby.

Her current art making is split between sculpting and graphic design but Derby also draws with ink or colored pencils and works in a variety of mediums:  acrylics, watercolors, collage, and quilling. 

“I have always loved art,” says Derby. “As soon as I could hold a pencil, I was drawing or coloring.”

Visit Contact Derby at Follow her on Instagram @meow_charms

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