From whimsical to worldly |

From whimsical to worldly

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

For Kat Townsend, holidays are fine and birthdays are nice. But last Wednesday, a fairly routine and sleepy mid-April weekday for most Aspenites, was Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween and her birthday rolled into one. It was the day that packages arrived from two-score schools and youth organizations, containing the contents of this year’s Valley Kids exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum.

Townsend, as the art museum’s head of education programs, was responsible for tearing open – carefully – the dozens of crates and inspecting the paintings, collages, papier-mache, photographs and sculptures inside. The act of unwrapping the packages is like unleashing hundreds of little creative minds, and it is a job that makes the 30-something Townsend feel like a kid who has landed on the top of Santa Claus’ who’s-been-good list.

“If they took this part of the job away from me, I’d cry,” said Townsend, who is overseeing her fifth Valley Kids exhibit. “For an art educator, it’s like Christmas.”

Getting to open the packages is only part of the pleasure. Townsend gets to play with the presents too. With the help of a half-dozen or so assistants, Townsend takes those hundreds of works of art and arranges them until they fill to bursting the walls, floors and ceilings of the museum’s downstairs and upstairs galleries.

Coherence counts: Animal art all goes together; work influenced by native cultures – American Indians, African, Japanese – goes in one corner; florals and landscapes get their own section. Then there is the monumental task of lighting all the pieces. The work may come from 5-year-old Sally and 9-year-old Timmy, but to see Townsend and her team at work, you’d think she was handling O’Keeffes and Warhols.

“Putting it together, that’s what I look forward to the whole year,” she said, noting that it would take an entire week to hang and light the show.

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Finally, as with all good gifts, there is the element of surprise. Though Townsend has been in contact with art teachers from Aspen to Marble to Eagle since last autumn, making sure they are at work on their projects, the first glimpse she gets of the art is when she opens those crates.

Townsend will share those presents with the community as Valley Kids 2003 opens at the museum with a reception on Thursday, April 24, from 4-7 p.m. Students from the Suzuki Violin Studio, led by Heidi Curatolo, and from the Aspen Country Day School will perform. Valley Kids runs through May 18, and admission to the museum will be free throughout the exhibit.

From sock dogs to Tupac

While Townsend gets to open the crates and arrange the show, everyone gets to experience the best part of Valley Kids, the actual contents of those packages. And it truly is a treat.

The downstairs gallery, devoted to the work of the youngest artists, is a sensation of color, imagination and messy vitality. The art may not be serious, but clearly the efforts have been. (If there are unsung heroes of the exhibit, it is the art teachers who shepherd the work from the original classroom inspiration to finished products on the museum walls.)

One has to be impressed by the work – and teamwork – that goes into large-scale group projects like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” from Miss Mare’s Playgroup, and the 20-plus-foot whale skeleton from the Aspen Community School that wouldn’t be out of place in a museum of natural history. Both hang, after major efforts, from the ceiling.

The fantasy section of the downstairs exhibit includes a cute-as-can-be project of dragons, with their eggs and babies, and stained-glass-style pieces, both from the students of the Early Childhood Center. The cultural corner features paper kimonos with origami birds and haiku text from Basalt Middle School eighth-graders; dream-catchers of beads, feathers and leather from Aspen Country Day School sixth-graders; and a Batik culture quilt from the Carbondale Middle School’s sixth grade.

The animal kingdom is well represented, with sock dogs from the Carbondale Community School kindergartners and hanging, stuffed-paper whales from the second-graders of Aspen Elementary School. For me, the highlight of the downstairs gallery is “Let’s All Get Along,” the Growing Years Preschool’s papier-mache sculpture of Aspen’s famous cat-on-mouse-on-dog team. A note informs that it was created “to remind us of the importance of getting along.”

Many of the works in the downstairs exhibit were created in conjunction with academic studies. The Waldorf School eighth-graders sharpened their drawing skills by making portraits of such revolutionaries as Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi. The Carbondale Middle School’s eighth-graders’ ambitious “Portraits of People” series features pencil drawings and linoleum prints of such figures as Bill Clinton and Tupac Shakur, who received multiple renderings.

Most interesting were the works created as tie-ins with art history by the Carbondale Middle School students. A group project of interpretations of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Grant Woods’ “American Gothic” – now transformed into “Gothic Gone Groovy” – is underlined by lessons in cooperation and individuality. A group of self-portraits done in the styles of Roy Lichtenstein, Georges Seurat and Andy Warhol, and a set of Picasso-styled silk self-portraits are also attention-grabbers.

Moving up in concept

The staircase is lined with black-and-white photographs from the students of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, and they serve as a transition from the simpler work of the younger students in the downstairs gallery to the sophisticated pieces of the older artists. The upstairs gallery, filled with self-portraits, commentaries on the world and sharp humor, reflects young creative minds coming into adulthood and confronting their identities.

Laura Walker, from Palisade High School, has a pair of acrylic paintings that show as much a point of view as technical skill. “Mesmerized” is a commentary on the hypnotic effect of television, as a zombie-eyed family stares at the screen. The message of “What Dental Floss Will Do” is more vague, but also more original and memorable.

Another Palisade High School student, Alex Hernandez, shows versatility and ambition with “The Three Oracles,” a haunting acrylic on seed canvas, as well as the eye-catching sculpture “The Legs Have It.” “`Chaz’ by Peter” and “`Peter’ by Chaz,” a pair of works by Colorado Rocky Mountain School students Charlie Roberts and Peter Moore, offer a different take on portraiture, with the two taking on one another as subjects. Aspen Country Day School student Katrina Bloemsma created a pair of revealing self-portraits on paper. Aspen High School’s Madison Burke conveys much about the teenage existence with her “Fractured Features,” a mixed-media work of a fragmented face on a cracked mirror.

Homer Strong, a ninth-grader at the Marble Charter School, shows a penchant for conceptual art, with a simple calligraphy text bound to make viewers scratch their heads and laugh. Also displaying a sense of humor is “`Tie’-pwriter,” a mixed-media work by Aspen High School student Bradley Cummins.

Townsend hopes that the Valley Kids exhibit is the beginning of the students’ relationship with art – and the Aspen Art Museum.

“I think the most important thing about this exhibit is, we provide an opportunity for kids to show their art professionally,” she said. “In turn, they’ll be our future patrons and members, and parents supporting the arts.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is