The girl with the puffy cheeks wins, in more ways than one

The artist didn’t want to enter the clay bust of the girl with puffy cheeks and a blue bird perched on her head.
Because the girl was her.
 
And those puffy cheeks were hers.
 
“She was embarrassed,” explained Nikole Andersen’s mom.
 
Nikole has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
 
The Dawes Middle School seventh-grader takes 20 different pills every day, gets weekly injections and bi-monthly infusions at the hospital, and is scheduled for hip replacement surgery in August.
 
Last Friday, her self-portrait in clay won the Youth Division of the National Arts Program contest for city and Lincoln Public Schools employees and their families.
 
The judges didn’t know the story behind the untitled bust.
 
“Initially, we couldn’t believe it was done by a youth,” Jen Landis said. “It just really stood out with the details and color and imagination.”
 
Nikole created it for an art class assignment: Look in the mirror and sculpt what you see.
 
So the hazel-eyed, round-cheeked girl did. The bird? “That was just extra.”
Steroids make her face round, Nikole said.
 
And a bad right hip makes her walk funny. (Some kids made fun of her for it, which is why Nikole helped organize and speak at a school assembly on bullying in December.)
 
Working with clay is soothing for her stiff joints.
 
Awarding the first place ribbon -- and the $75 cash prize -- to Nikole’s self-portrait was a unanimous choice.
 
One that made her happy, Nikole said Monday.
 
“I was very, very surprised and very excited.”
 
Her name was the first one called at the awards ceremony Friday.
 
Nikole’s very first thought was this: “How am I going to spend my money?”
 
And her very next thought was this: on shoes.
 
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