Here’s a terrifying idea: Hand eight gallons of paint to a group of teenagers and encourage them to unleash their creativity on a school wall of their choosing.
But Alta High’s visual arts teacher Denise Crane trusted her students, never doubting they would rise to the challenge, and they didn’t disappoint. Their handiwork, a colorful, 24-foot-long mural reminiscent of the rock art panels gracing southern Utah’s canyon walls, was unveiled to great acclaim earlier this month — the culmination of five months of work.
Students were given full artistic freedom, says Crane. “They’d come every day after school for at least two hours on their own time. They weren’t told to be here. They weren’t earning a grade to be here. They were here because they wanted to participate and because of their love for art.”
Now a permanent fixture at Alta, the fresco celebrates our American Indian heritage and was made possible by the Center for Documentary Expression and Art and its “Sacred Images” artist-in-residence program. The program pairs students with professional artist guides — in Alta’s case, Utah muralist Ruby Chacon — whose role is to empower students to express themselves. “They didn’t know at first that they would be coming up with the ideas; that this was going to be a manifestation of who they are,” Chacon explains. “The way I work is I say, ‘Let’s figure out how to draw upon your knowledge that you already have to visually communicate ideas into a story that depicts you and creates a safe space of belonging.’”
The learning experience began with a field trip to Nine Mile Canyon where students got to experience Utah history through the rock drawings of the Fremont people who once lived there. Kiowa-Apache storyteller Dovie Thomason visited the school and regaled students with stories from her heritage and personal life. It’s her likeness that students chose to depict along the mural’s left-hand side.
Funding was provided by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks Program. Board members and District administrators and dignitaries, including Shirlee Silversmith, Director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, were on hand for the unveiling to celebrate the achievement.
But the mural was wholly conceived and created by students. “It’s amazing to know when I graduate I’ll be leaving something behind,” said student artist Peyton Camomile.
Last year, students at Hillcrest High created a similar mural. So far, the piece at Alta High is the largest in the “Sacred Images” collection. It depicts school life — if you look closely you can spot self-portraits of some of the students — the passage of time through the changing of the seasons, and the permanence of knowledge as it flows from one generation to the next.