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15-year-old art prodigy goes from paper to crystal in crafting award

Meredith Graf is doing something she's never done before: she's sculpting, and this, her very first attempt, will be displayed at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. for decades to come. How is that possible for a 15-year-old freshman?

NEW ORLEANS -- Meredith Graf is doing something she's never done before: she's sculpting, and this, her very first attempt, will be displayed at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. for decades to come.

How is that possible for a 15-year-old freshman in high school?

Last year Meredith wrote a school essay on endangered species. In doing so, she talked to people at the U.S. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. They were so impressed with her they did some digging, and they found out she's an accomplished artist.

We featured Meredith in a news story back in 2006, then a 12-year-old phenom. These pictures of Bill Russell and President George Bush were done with only a pencil and her hands.

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries asked Meredith to design a poster they could use as an annual award for an endangered species poster contest they were sponsoring. Meredith said yes, and no, because a poster wouldn't be enough.

'I wanted to be able to add something more to the contest,' Meredith said. 'Make it a little more different and special and stand out.'

Meredith had a vision of something bigger. She felt she wanted an eagle, so she quickly drew the outline on paper. And then she decided the eagle should be made of lead crystal and sit on top of a piece of American granite, with a map of the United States made out of redwood.

'I thought it would be cool to have an eagle standing over the United States, which was an endangered species,' Meredith said. 'I thought it was a great symbol.'

So Meredith had her design, but then she had to figure out a way to turn an idea in her head into an actual glass sculpture for the federal government, which she'd never done before. She needed help, and she got it at an art studio in the Marigny.

She knocked on the door of James Vella, a glass sculptor whose artwork can be found worldwide. When he found out what Meredith was attempting and then saw some of her artwork, he knew he couldn't say no.

'I was absolutely blown away,' Vella said. 'And it became a situation where I was excited to work with her in the same manner.'

After school the pair worked on the project. The materials were donated, and Vella gave his time and work space.

It started out as a big block of wax. Meredith used a razor knife to sculpt the eagle, making precise cuts to form feathers on the wings and the head.

But Meredith's artistic talent is drawing two-dimensional pictures. Sculpting is a totally different medium, and it's three-dimensional. That's where James helped out, and Meredith's vision and natural talent broke through.

'We barely went off a picture. The eagle was a few lines on a piece of paper and we just kind of took it from our heads,' Meredith said.

'Leaps and bounds ahead of anybody else trying to be an artist, and I think the skies the limit, really truly for her,' Vella said.

Eventually the wax eagle will become a mold, and melted lead crystal will be poured inside to become the trophy. The finished product will stay at the zoo in Washington D.C., and each year the new poster winner will have their name put on it.

Meredith hopes they appreciate what the contest is really all about.

'I really want them to have more love for endangered species and animals. That I grew up and I feel like, had I not grown with a love for animals, I may have never written this paper,' Meredith said. 'It just all wouldn't have started.'

Meredith has already been recognized for her work in a resolution by the Louisiana legislature, and Jefferson Parish officials declared this past March 3 to be 'Meredith Graf Day.' And now a trophy she designed and created will provide a legacy adults dream of.

I asked her if she could believe this was all happening to her.

'Not really. Most of the time I'm thinking I need to do more. I've always just wanted to be able to help people with my art and I hope this is a great way.'

Talented and humble: always a winning combination.

Earlier this week Meredith took the trophy to Washington D.C., where the first winners were announced. The age group winners art work will be on display this summer at the Ogden Museum, which was another sponsor of the contest.

The trophy's not quite done and still in the wax stage. The leaded crystal work will continue for a couple of weeks, and then the finished work will go back up to Washington for Endangered Species Day on May 21.