In this digital age of distraction and social isolation, a few dozen Brighton High artists found connection and meaning in the deep human themes depicted in the ancient wall art and petroglyphs of Nine Mile Canyon.
Their trip through the dusty wilds of southern Utah was an educational journey through time, serving as artistic inspiration for a mural they unveiled on Wednesday. For some, the hours spent surrounded by sandstone monoliths and aromatic sagebrush was a restorative break from the hectic pace of an urban high school. Others found connection in communing with voices from the past. Many remarked on how the scope, importance and lasting nature of the art project gave them a sense of purpose.
“The making of beauty, the investing of yourself into making beautiful things in your landscape knowing that they’re going to endure beyond you, knowing that they’ll be there for the next generation, for your grandchildren…is a commitment,” says Lakota/Plains Apache storyteller Dovie Thomason. “If not sacred, we’d certainly call it a top priority.”
Brighton is the fifth Canyons District high school to create a Sacred Images mural as a monument to indigenous peoples. The piece will be permanently installed at the school after the campus is rebuilt with proceeds from a general obligation bond approved by voters in Nov. 2017. The project was made possible by the Center for Documentary Expression and Art and its “Sacred Images” artist-in-residence program, which paired students with Thomason, Ute spiritual leader Larry Cesspooch and muralist Miguel Galaz guides whose role was to empower students to express themselves.
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Before entering Nine Mile Canyon, Ute Elder and Spiritual Leader Larry Cesspooch gathered with students to bless them with an eagle’s wing. He also shared the Ute creation story and several other tales that have become part of Ute oral tradition over the centuries.
To hear these and other familiar tales retold by Cesspooch and Thomason “gave the stories a voice that I had never heard before,” said Brighton English teacher Ron Meyer. “It was such a beautiful thing, and I think my students really appreciated that.”
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. “I’d like to take credit, but seriously these students, they did it,” said commercial and AP art teacher Derek Chandler. “We got hands-on and spray-painted, we masked, and we did different art forms that we hadn’t done before.”
The mural, with its bright orange and blue hues, has a characteristically Bengal flair. But beneath the neon paint is a layer of sepia-toned historical photographs depicting people and places who been unifying forces in the students’ world. “When we created the background, we tried to focus on things that brought us together as a community and as a nation,” said student artist Jessica Brunt. “I’m really grateful to have been a part of this project. It was something I’ll never forget and that has helped make me a better person.”
Video courtesy of the Center for Documentary Expression and the Arts.