Accompanied in each case by written self-reflection, 180 students from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools as well as Jordan Middle School explore their identities through painting, ceramics, sculpture, graphic arts and photography.
"This is a means of getting a pulse on how our teens are doing," veteran Gunn art teacher Deanna Messinger said.
"We let (the students) know we wanted them to go as authentic and deep as possible."
The art, she said, "speaks volumes on how our teens are doing this year."
Messinger is mounting the art-with-narrative show — called "Youth Speaks Out" — for the third time in as many years. It has grown from 84 pieces and one teacher in 2012 to 180 pieces and five teachers this year.
Gunn Art Department head Mark Gleason's graphic arts students participated this year.
"For my particular class, it didn't change what they did that much," Gleason said. "But they definitely put more of a personal input into the work, and the narratives they had not done before."
Also represented for the first time this year are middle school students — those in Jordan Middle School art teacher Leslie Goldman's ceramics and sculpture class.
"Without an outlet to express myself, I would have loads of bottled up emotions with no way to let them out," wrote a 13-year-old Jordan student to accompany her ceramic sculpture of a bottle of ink holding a quill pen.
"Art is just one more way to transport someone and think differently," she wrote. "My hope for this project was to combine both writing and art because they are really very closely related. I am very proud of the simplicity of the sculpture and think it represents me very well."
High school artists expressed optimism, hope, angst, confusion and more.
A Palo Alto High School junior in Margo Wixsom's photography class described her self-portrait, titled "Change": "In this stage of my life I'm in transition between acting like a teen and an adult."
"Burning out my face represents moving on from my childish demeanor and slowly transitioning to a more mature self. The white in the background represents a blank canvas for my adult life and the unlimited opportunities I have for my future."
In a brightly colored piece called "The Balance of Life," an 18-year-old Gunn graphic artist wrote of a striving for balance: "Present day teenagers are expected to balance so much in their lives," the student wrote.
"With all the expectation sometimes the stress can get to us. That is what the wave symbolizes: sometimes everything comes crashing down on you but you have to keep going and try to balance out your life. The two koi fish symbolize a balance in your life. Finding the correct balance may take a long time, but in the end it will be worth it."
The "ever-present distractions of technology" was a topic for another graphic artist, a 17-year-old Gunn student.
Beneath a human profile crowded with corporate logos of Twitter, Netflix, Facebook, iTunes and Instagram, the student wrote: "This piece of work is meant to bring to light the relationship between teenagers and technology.
"With the introduction of modern computers, phones and television, teenagers are overcome with the presence of technology in every aspect of their life. With technology comes social media, and now with new applications and websites, social media dominates teenage life. This has led to a generation lacking in the ability to communicate in person. This piece is meant to illustrate how the teenager mind is impaired with the ever-present distraction of technology."
A 17-year-old Gunn student wrote about the pain of being stereotyped because he is Mexican: "I grew up in Mexico without knowing about stereotypes because in Mexico you don't see many people from other countries," he wrote.
"When I first got here to the country I had mixed feelings about leaving my home country to live the 'American Dream.'
"I'm really proud to be Mexican and to have such a beautiful background. People stereotype me a lot; people stereotype a lot in general but they think it's okay with me because I'm a teenager and they play with me without knowing that it kind of hurts."
An art therapist was on hand twice a week in each classroom to help students deal with emotionally sensitive topics, said community volunteer Carolyn Digovich, who has coordinated Youth Speaks Out for the past three years.
"As emotions would come up, she was that genuine voice who could be there to facilitate what was out of our job description as art teachers to handle," Messinger said.
"Youth Speaks Out" is on exhibit from March 21 to April 5 at the Palo Alto Art Center, with an opening and celebration Saturday, March 22, from 5 to 8 p.m.
Besides the Palo Alto school district and the art center, co-sponsors include the City of Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Palo Alto Partners in Education, Project Safety Net, the Palo Alto Teen Arts Council and the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund. Business supporters, Digovich said, include Gott's Roadside, Kirk's, Howie's Artisan Pizza, Susie Cakes and Shiok!.