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Cherry Hill East student turning inward to find external rewards

Celani’s musical and artistic talent forged in spite of adverse circumstances.

Cherry Hill High School East junior Jessica Celani hasn’t let anxiety get in the way of natural artistic and musical talent. She’s pictured at home, relaxing while working on a portrait of an old man from the comfort of her living room floor.

Jessica Celani, a just-turned-17-year-old junior at Cherry Hill East, lives each day with the knowledge that anxiety and panic attacks can occur pretty much any time. She has traveled a long road since being diagnosed at a young age, but is proof that small victories can lead to big opportunities. 

“When she got to school, they thought she had Oppositional Defiance Disorder. But, they later diagnosed it as anxiety. She was angry, irritable. She was a terror. And then, I guess as she started progressing with some therapy, she started singing,” said mother Jill Celani. 

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Jessica was involved in the choir at Holy Eucharist Catholic Church for about 10 years, then at Rosa International Middle School, she doubled up on musical endeavors.

“I was in chorus all three years and then I was in the Rosettes, a select group, my eighth-grade year. There were about 15 to 20 girls and we sang a capella.”

Jessica was pushed to the limits that year, prodded by her vocal teacher to audition for a solo. She ended up having to sing the opening to “For Good,” from the musical “Wicked,” in front of 1,000 people. 

“Honestly, I don’t remember a whole lot. I was so anxious for it, I remember holding the microphone and shaking,” Jessica said. 

“But I did it. I tried not to think about it so much beforehand.”

Jessica continues to sing at school, now featured in Chansons, another select choir of more than 70 girls directed by Heather Lockart, gained by successful auditions after completion of a vocal workshop at the end of freshman year. 

There’s another method Jessica has found as a coping mechanism, having become deeply interested in drawing. 

“I’ve always liked to draw, since I was little. I would doodle in class a lot. And then do these mandalas. And then in 2017, that summer, I had a hard time,” she said. 

At 15 years old, Jessica was adamant she didn’t want to leave the house. In defiance of decades of thought that places a young person’s sociability at a higher premium than those who might wish to withdraw, she made the most of that time – teaching herself how to draw. 

“They were her escapes, the drawing. She didn’t want to be around her friends, she didn’t want to be around people.  She does not like summer, she does not like doing nothing. She loves school,” Jill stated. 

Jessica mainly focuses on portraits, whose depth, emotion and detail are not surprising to those who have experienced similar issues and choose to devote their time to singular efforts. Their intricacy has surprised everyone, from her mother to her teachers at East. 

“I draw in school, sometimes I do it during my lunch periods. My English teacher also lets me draw in her classroom, and there was one time she called my name three times and it just didn’t register. (At home) I don’t usually have my earbuds in. I just sit here at the (kitchen) table or lay down on the floor and get at it,” Jessica explained. 

“I start out by drawing a grid. I just get regular paper and I use a ruler and I line things up into squares and go from there.” 

That budding talent was enough for Jessica to receive a partial scholarship for a one-week course at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia this past summer, but for a variety of reasons, it just didn’t work out like she planned. The experience hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for creation.

Looking ahead, Jessica revealed she doesn’t wish to use her talent to forge a career, opting instead to focus on her love of history to become a history teacher. At the moment, she’s studying United States History from the Civil War to the present. She claims Ancient Egyptian history and American history as her favorites. 

Getting ahead of the college crush expected as a senior, Jessica is looking at Arcadia University, the University of Delaware and then College of New Jersey and Rowan University to fit her academic needs.

“Definitely going local. Nowhere really far,” she said. 

A collection of Jessica’s drawings can be found on her Instagram account, @jess_art_72.

BOB HERPEN
BOB HERPEN
Former radio broadcaster, hockey writer, Current: main beat reporter for Haddonfield, Cherry Hill and points beyond.
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