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Thursday, September 22, 2011

AfterImage Series

Entry 3

I had some responsibilities at the Canyon. It wasn't a scott-free deal, but it was a pretty sweet one. The AIR program gave me an astonishing place to live for 3 weeks. I was about as far from the sheer drop of the South Rim as a pitcher is from home plate. And I was on the second floor, with access to a rooftop deck (really just the flat rooftop of Verkamp's Visitors Center porch), so I could overlook the earth's innards. I loved it when tourists would pose in front of the Canyon, which meant they'd be facing Verkamp's, and muse to the wind, "How'd that woman get up there?"

In return for all this I provided the AIR program with 3 public services. I gave the 8th graders at the Grand Canyon School a creative writing lesson; I gave a talk on how petrographs came to be; and most memorably, I judged a children's art contest.

The class went pretty well. Halfway through I realized I'd forgotten to wear a bra in front of a group of 8th graders, and lost my concentration. To make up for it I became even more energetic than usual, until a girl sitting cross-legged at my feet asked me to stop waving my arms around. "Whenever you do that," she said, "the ashes fly up in the fireplace behind you and rain down on our heads."

Sure enough, the kids were covered in ash.

I gave the class the sentence, "I was making pancakes when the monster came, and..." The assignment was to complete it.

One kid said, "...cut eye, mouth, and nose holes out of the pancakes and wore them as a mask." But this was my favorite: "...said, "Hi honey, what's for breakfast?"

Judging the art show sounded like fun, but proved to be a real conscience-tickler. How do you choose between a kindergardener's masterwork and a high school student's pretty good assignment? Technique or inspiration? A young woman named Celina--my co-judge--and I nearly pulled out our hair.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Daily Telegraph...

Artist in residence: creating art in America's natural masterpiece

In the first report from her three-week asignment, Pamela Petro, artist in residence at the Grand Canyon, is tasked with judging the creative efforts of America's imaginative youth.

Creating art in America's natural masterpiece: blog one
Examples of the work created by Pamela Petro's young novices 

I woke this morning to coral-colored sunlight streaming across my bed and furious snow flurries framed in my window.

Canyon weather is like a kid’s drawing or a Cubist painting, an otherworld where no space/time combinations are impossible. Very cool, but it makes dressing difficult. The weather, as it happens, was a perfect template forthe day’s activities. One of my responsibilities as Artist in Residence is to do a series of community programmes, and today was my first.

I and a young woman named Celina, who’s about to embark on a career as an art teacher, formed a panel of two as jurors of this year’s Grand Canyon’s Kolb Studio Annual Student Art Show. It was our job to select first, second, and third place winners in four groups: 5-7 year-olds, 8-10 year-olds, 11- 13 year-olds, and 14-18 year-olds.

The theme this year was “Creating Traditions,” which, we discovered, can mean just about anything. To get the kids’ paints, pencils, markers, and crayons moving, organizers set a series of questions.What unique traditions do you or your family follow? What traditions do you have in common with others in your community? How do you create new traditions?

Based on the work we saw today, the American Southwest is in for some freaky new customs.

“Deers Kissing” is one. (Not “deer,” but “deers,” as the title insisted.) Another is sword-carrying snakes, pictured in a work called “Camping in the Woods.” There were also more, well, traditional traditions: kids drawing the Canyon, kids depicting the Canyon in collages, kids drawing animals, brothers, sisters, still-lives, friends, Native American iconography, and that perennial favourite, bugs.

At one point Celina remarked that many of the pieces must’ve been made at Christmas, since the kids filled their skies with massive, bright-rayed stars that looked like shorthand for the star. “Oh, no,” said Helen, one of the organizers. “That’s the way stars look to these children.”

That exchange, more than all the rock strata scribbled in yellow, red, and orange markers, reminded me I was judging a contest at the Grand Canyon and nowhere else. That’s how the stars look to me at night, too, from the crown of the sky all the way to the horizon. These children take nothing for granted.

Some of the titles were extraordinary. “Weather or Not” showed a storm over the Canyon—black clouds that looked like they needed a shave, heavily crayoned on neon-orange paper. “Night of the Silent River” and the cerebral “As You Go Within” were more about words than images. As was my very favourite title, “The Grand Canyon with 19, The Red Headed Condor.” We never figured out what that meant, but we liked it a lot.

Should someone ever ask you to judge a children’s art contest, don’t think, “Oh, how sweet! That’ll be fun.” You might as well reply, “Oh, forget the contest. I’ll just go straight out and crush children’s hopes and dreams underfoot, rather than critique their work. It’ll go faster that way.”

Celina and I agonized for three hours and looked at over 200 drawings, paintings, collages, and three-dimensional pieces. If Rene Westbrook, the Artist in Residency Coordinator for the South Rim, hadn’t brought us homemade Pad Thai for lunch, we’d still be there, too weak to make our selections.

We finally settled on “Painting of the Grand Canyon” by seven year-old Maria Hernandez as Best in Show, a vibrant, liquidy watercolor that looked to me like Chagall on a good day, with a new paint box. I hope this will create a new tradition for Maria: drawing what she so clearly loves.

  • Pamela Petro will be writing two further columns for Telegraph Travel, recounting her experiences as the Grand Canyon's artist-in-residence.

Here's Celina holding up Maria's winning work:

I heard later that some folks weren't too happy that a second grader had won, but Maria was happy.

Thanks to all the students at the Grand Canyon School whose work is featured in this post! And to all the students who submitted to the show. It was a delightful agony choosing amongst your work!

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