02/18/2013 07:01 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

A Beauty Pageant for Artists and Philosophers

What happens when you ask high-school students from around the world to make something beautiful? Submissions from around the world surprised and moved us, highlighting beauty in the natural world and the beauty of individual expression, among other themes.

Scroll down to see the entries.

The first-place winner, Nya Cooks of Upatoi, Ga., emphasized the intersection of nature and human experience in her submission. Nya's work assumed a traditional form -- a long, flowing women's dress -- but superimposed onto the dress a striking allegorical context, with the top portion of the gown made from autumn leaves.

"Fall leaves represent wisdom, experience [...] time and exposure to life," she writes. "Their unique, deep purplish-red color gives them the look of a tough, sturdy leather [...] like the thick skin of a person who has endured many tests and trials."

The second-place winner, Erica Siclari of Brooklyn, N.Y., also drew heavily on organic materials-- dandelions, petals, good clean dirt -- in crafting her submission, a stop-motion video tribute to the beauty of natural cycles. In it, night cycles into day, clouds flit by and bring rain, some plants wither as others blossom.

Erica also professed her love for cycles as gateways to attaining scientific understanding. "Without cycles, scientists would not be able to predict anything," she writes. "Facts would be random pieces of information instead of important clues to a puzzle."

Meanwhile, two contestants from Vermont captured the beauty of their surroundings from behind the lens of a camera. The images that comprise "Home," by Anna Berger of Dorset, stutter by in crisp blue, green and golden hues -- rippling brooks, tall pines, majestic sunsets. Yasi Zeichner, meanwhile, photographed in breathtaking detail the emergence of a large Polyphemus moth from a papery brown chrysalis.

While some students looked outward for sources of beauty, others turned inward to consider the life of the mind and the individual in society. Emily Ross of Gray, Maine, led the charge in championing the beauty of individual expression. Her third-place winning submission, called "Breaking Free," was a fun, youthful variation on an age-old theme: sticking it to the Man and marching to the beat of your own drum.

The painted backdrop of her mixed-media piece shows a group of suit-and-tie businessmen, faceless and identical, hanging from marionette strings. Literally bursting out of the canvass, however, is a sculpted figurine shown tearing off his tie, leaving his marionette strings and drab office life behind.

Other works to praise the unique and individual include "Shattered Beauty" by Jacob Kydd of Arlington, Mass. Jacob's painting of an apple is cracked deliberately, as though from age, a quality he believes enhances its beauty and credibility. "[The apple's] flaws make it unique and therefore more real and tangible," he argues. "A unique object is more beautiful than a perfect replica."

The individual's striving for self-discovery, meanwhile, is taken up by Octavio Durante of San Bernardino, Calif., who explored both his Latin American and Japanese heritage in his drawing, incorporating motifs from both cultures.

In total, the submissions enveloped countless themes and perspectives. Other noted entries included odes to diversity, new beginnings, charity, feeling and consciousness itself. And every single submission was totally unique in terms of execution -- an apt tribute to the wide swath of artistry this contest drew from.

"Make something beautiful. Say why it is." This was the simple prompt at the heart of the Beautiful Minds Challenge, a contest we invited teens from the around the world to take part in, awarding cash prizes of up to $1,000 for the top three submissions. We will also be hosting a symposium on beauty this February, to which the top 20 entrants have received an all-expenses-paid trip.

So why all the fuss about beauty to begin with? Why should we ask teens to "make something beautiful" as opposed to just "make a compelling work of art, literature, music, etc."?

For one, it forces artists engaging in the creative process to examine questions of method, intent and purpose, exercising many of the same critical faculties that are so vital in the college years and beyond.

Another benefit is that it encourages familiarity with historical dilemmas and debates surrounding beauty in critical discourse. Our own resident professor of philosophy, William Edelglass, wrote about a few of these topics for the competition blog, hoping to inspire contestants. Questions he raised included how beauty relates to our spiritual lives; whether beauty is a subjective experience or an objective property; and whether the pursuit of beauty is a distraction from the more pressing concerns of ethics and justice.

Finally, one might say it's good for the soul. It encourages students to find sources of meaning and value -- a healthy exercise at any stage of life.

The Beautiful Minds Challenge, "Make something beautiful. Say why it is."