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Imagination Detonation

Stewart Oksenhorn
A multimedia collage by Riverside Middle School's Kaitlin Moeller is a highlight of the Lower Gallery portion of the Aspen Art Museum's Valley Kids 2004. Aspen Times photo/Devon Meyers.
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Valley Kids, the Aspen Art Museum’s annual exhibit that hands over the museum walls to the local schoolchildren, is almost more than one can handle in a single dose. It’s not quite the Louvre, but taking in the entire show is perhaps best managed over more than one visit. “Bombastic in its fervency,” is how Aspen Art Museum executive director and chief curator Dean Sobel elegantly puts it.

There are papier-mache trout – rainbows one would assume, given the boldness and variety of the colors – hanging from the ceiling. A few dozen posters announcing the current Valley Kids exhibit share a wall with long lines of self-portraits and depictions of Basalt. Most impressive is a groovy, purple-heavy wildlife mural; most ambitious is a printmaking mural of Colorado flora and fauna. There are collages and self-portraits and drawings.

Congratulations. You’ve made your way through the entryway to Valley Kids 2004, which opened with a reception yesterday and runs through May 16.

The exhibit includes work by students from over 40 local schools and youth organizations, and features contributions from preschool painters to high school photographers hailing from Aspen to Glenwood Springs to Palisade. There are hundreds and hundreds of pieces to look at, which stretch from floor to ceiling in the museum’s lower gallery. Think getting your kindergartner to focus on a sidewalk drawing for 10 minutes is a project? Try corralling several hundred young artists and shepherding their creations from 40-some schoolrooms spread out over an entire valley to the same place, on time and intact.

“It’s like this huge, massive, colorful puzzle that I and my installation crew have to put together,” said Kat Townsend, the Aspen Art Museum’s head of education programs, claiming a case of vertigo from looking up the museum walls over four days of installation. “That’s the challenge and also the reward. Because I have no idea what I’m getting. It’s problem-solving at its finest.”

For Townsend, an artist herself who is overseeing her sixth Valley Kids exhibit, the mass of crates and envelopes she receives each April is at least as much reward as challenge. Townsend has likened the day she begins unveiling the art as Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween and her birthday rolled into one. There is certainly the sense of anticipation usually associated with Christmas morning; Townsend, after all, has been working with the students and their teachers since last August. “This is my labor of love,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing I do all year, to put this together.”

It’s hard to generate that kind of enthusiasm for a show of kids art – until one actually sets foot into the Valley Kids exhibit. The raw creativity and imagination, the humor, the endless varieties of media – paint, paper, plaster, prints, pillows, papier-mache and photographs (just to mention the P’s) – and the diversity of end products is captivating. There’s hardly any more effective way of finding your inner child than wandering around Valley Kids for an hour or three.

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As a celebration of its 25th anniversary, the Aspen Art Museum assigned a theme to this year’s Valley Kids exhibit, Portrait of a Valley. Typically, the art projects were combined with academic curriculum, anything from the rain forests to semi-famous artists to the Inca civilization. But with the emphasis on the Roaring Fork Valley, there is plenty of local history, contemporary community – and lots of Colorado wildlife.

“For the most part, we got a portrait of our valley – hanging trout, animal murals, a gondola,” said Townsend. “There’s a lot of the idea of place, things being inspired by place.”

One of the more intriguing sets of works connected to the Aspen area are the scratchboards made by the fifth- and sixth-graders at the Aspen Community School. Inspired by the myth of aspen groves – not something I was aware of, but which has piqued my curiosity – the students scratched images they might want to save for next Halloween. The pictures, etched out of a black background, were based on phrases the students came up with: “I eat tree-huggers” and “The alien trees are invading,” with appropriately spooky imagery

Other projects depicting aspects of the local community include the two decorated, papier-mache Wildwood domes done by the students of the Wildwood School; snowboard, ski and skateboard designs by Carbondale Middle Schoolers; the irresistible gondola created by Aspen Country Day School students; and the Victorian-style houses of Carbondale, done in shrinky-dink by the seventh-graders of the Carbondale Middle School. Particularly striking is the group mural “Carbondale’s Mount Sopris and Local Wildlife,” also by the Carbondale Middle School seventh-graders.

Away from the Portrait of a Valley theme are the action figures by the Basalt Middle School seventh-graders; Inca pillows by students at St. Stephen’s Catholic School; and the origami sculpture “1000 Paper Cranes” by Aspen Middle School fifth-graders. Two projects were done by Aspen Middle Schoolers in tribute to artists: found-object horse sculptures in the style of Deborah Butterfield, and ceramic desserts modeled after the creations of Wayne Thiebaud, the “king of pastry art.” An entire corner is devoted to the animals and plants of the Amazon rain forest.

One work that stopped me in my tracks was a media collage of a very hip-looking bearded guy, done with surprising sophistication by Kaitlin Moeller, a seventh-grader at the Riverside Middle School.

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Ascend the stairs and Valley Kids turns instantly from chaos to calm. In a departure from the past, the high school students, whose work occupies the Upper Gallery, were confined to the medium of photography. The Art Museum provided some 60 disposable cameras to teachers, who distributed them to students showing the most talent or curiosity. Forty-one cameras were returned; Townsend and Sobel surveyed the work and selected the best photographs from each student.

Among the most accomplished works are those by Ian Soroka and Maddie Overton, both of Aspen High School; Yampah Mountain High School’s Luke Baker; and Michelle Reynolds from YouthZone Glenwood Springs.

Soroka – son of photography gallery owner Joel Soroka – went for high concept. He took life-size cutouts of Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and the like and placed them in junkyard settings. The result is visually humorous, with a fairly complex commentary on Aspen values.

Overton likewise placed the living among the dead. Her photographs of puppies in a graveyard are both cute and unsettling.

Baker – son of photographer and Anderson Ranch Arts Center executive director Jim Baker – captured haunting images of trees stripped bare by the Glenwood fires.

Reynolds’ stark black-and-white images of everyday objects – an empty bench, Doc Holliday’s grave – exhibit excellent technique while conveying a sense of loneliness and stillness.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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