Young artists across Marin County are channeling their pandemic experiences into creative expression — and one local nonprofit is giving them a platform to showcase their work.

The nonprofit Youth in Arts is currently hosting a free 3D virtual art exhibition through May 14 to recognize talented high school students across the county.

Artists featured in 30th annual “Rising Stars” show have used their craft to combat COVID-19 isolation, express outrage over systemic racism and even reflect on the death of feminist icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020.

Other students created pieces to celebrate musicians, actors and images that inspired them during shelter-in-place.

Morgan Schauffler, the “Rising Stars” curator, says keeping the decades-old show is more critical in pandemic times than ever before.

“What’s so important about continuing to exhibit the students’ work is to honor and value the fact that they’re sharing these pieces of themselves with us,” Schauffler says. “I’m just always blown away by the incredible talent of these students, but also the vulnerability and honesty that a lot of the artwork offers.”

A screenshot of the “Rising Stars” virtual 3D gallery shows how viewers can explore and appreciate the artworks from the comfort of home. (Courtesy of Youth in Arts)

The “Rising Stars” digital gallery features more than 90 works, including paintings, sculptures, mixed-media projects and photographs. Art teachers from Marin County high schools nominate their brightest students for a spot in the blindly judged show.

Amelie Benicio, a senior at San Rafael High School, typically draws upon the faces of her friends for inspiration. But when stay-at-home orders isolated her indoors, she began binge-watching Netflix and based her award-winning work off a photo of actor Maliq Johnson, who plays a character named Jayson Jackson in a show called “Grand Army.”

Benicio won Best in Show for a mixed-media work in the “Rising Stars” show.

“This is my second time winning that award,” Benicio says. “The first time I got it, I was completely amazed and then getting it again — it’s just the same exact feeling.”

Her 60-by-60-inch piece titled “Below the Surface” depicts a boy with a pair of watchful eyes that bore into the viewer. She completed the oil-and-acrylic portrait to finish her art school portfolio and was encouraged by her mother, artist Angelique Benicio, to be more free with her craft.

Amelie Benicio says the final product resulted from painting more loosely and focusing on a “feeling” rather than every little detail.

“I didn’t think too much in the process of it,” she says. “I just kind of did it.”

“Below the Surface” is Benicio’s largest creation yet. The young entrepreneur has already sold commissioned works for up to $700 and plans to study art at UC Santa Barbara this fall.

Youth in Art’s “Rising Stars” Best in Show winner Amelie Benicio paints a portrait based on actor Maliq Johnson. The acrylic-and-oil painting titled “Below the Surface” is her largest artwork yet. (Photo courtesy of Angelique Benicio)

For James Lee — who lives in San Mateo County but attends high school in Marin County — staying at home allowed him to dive into the world of abstract art. He began painting every day and recently landed one of his works in San Francisco’s de Young Open exhibition.

Lee won the Dominican University of California sponsor award for his piece in “Rising Stars” titled “Pandemic Fuschia” — a canvas lathered with streaks of yellow, green, purple and black acrylic paint on a striking fuchsia background.

“There’s so much sensory delight in his painting process, and I think that’s the result of (his) autism,” says Lee’s mother, artist Crisanta de Guzman. “Certainly, the canvases are very saturated.”

She adds that Lee enjoys taking a Sharpie to his work after painting to add images of swimming pools, boats and people to stretch his canvas.

Last year, Lee sold about 30 of his works at an auction that raised nearly $10,000 for his school.

Schauffler says hosting a virtual event was challenging, but the result is worth the effort.

Art enthusiasts missing the in-person museum experience can stroll — or scroll — through the 3D virtual halls and click on individual works to view them up close.

“It looks like you’re walking into a virtual gallery,” Schauffler says. “We actually hang the works on the wall and they have labels, and it looks really beautiful and very professional.

“We always try to get the students to show their artwork in a professional environment where they are highlighted for their hard work,” she continues. “It was really nice to be able to do that for them, even in a virtual format this year.”

* To explore the virtual gallery, visit the Youth in Arts website at The exhibition runs through May 14. Viewers can see some of the Best in Category winners and Amelie Benicio’s Best in Show artwork in person at the recently reopened YIA Gallery at 917 C St. in San Rafael on weekdays from 1-4 p.m.