One of the few national events celebrating the achievements of young Native artists — and definitely one of the largest — takes place in April at Arizona’s Heard Museum.
“The show is specifically designed for junior high and high school student artists, grades 7 through 12, who come from across the United States,” says Debra Utacia Krol, Museum Communications Manager and a member of the Xolon Salinan Tribe.
“In general, student art doesn’t get all the publicity it should and these kids — tomorrow’s master artists — are phenomenal. More than 200 budding artists get to set their own prices and receive the majority of the revenues as well as compete for a week-long summer workshop for winning students.”
This year some 1,700 works of art are slated for display and sale at the April 2-5 event, officially referred to as The Heard Museum Guild American Indian Student Art Show and Sale, more commonly called by its acronym — SASS. The show features an array of works — everything from katsina dolls, pottery, baskets, jewelry, beadwork, weavings, paintings and sculpture — as well as unique contemporary art in creative mediums.
A panel of esteemed judges chooses outstanding pieces in a juried competition where the winners receive both ribbons and cash prizes as well as revenue from the sale of their work. Over its history, the annual event has brought in a hundreds of thousands of dollars in student sales along with $185,000 in grants and scholarships.
Last year, nine initial and four renewal scholarships in the amount of $1,000 each were awarded. “It is strikingly clear to me that even $1K — not a great amount when compared to college expenses today — makes a huge difference to these young recipients, sometimes the difference between being able to attend school or not,” says Scholarship Committee Chairperson Emma Sansone. “It’s gratifying and humbling that these stipends can change a student’s life for the better with positive effects rippling on and out into the future.”
Public exhibition of student art endeavors has come a long way since 1968 when the first award in the “Student Painting” category was made as part of the initial Guild Indian Arts & Crafts Exhibit. Over the next decade, eligibility shifted back and forth between elementary, junior, and senior high school students and their craft creations and/or fine arts efforts until 1984 when only adult exhibitors were allowed to display at the Native American Invitational Arts Show.
A year later, student art was again included and by 1989, a Student Art Show — not part of the Indian Fair — became a separate entity.
“Despite changing names and eligibility requirements over the years, the mission here has remained the same,” says 84-year-old long-time Guild participant Isabelle Taylor, one of 600 volunteers who contribute some 50,000 hours per year to help run the museum and many of its programs.
“Our continuing mission is to showcase young Native American artists from all over the country, from many tribes and schools, exhibiting in many media (both 2- and 3-dimensional), and allowing their works to be seen — and sold — at the museum,” she says.
Entries are divided into divisions by school grade and by category of art or craft — and show goers will find examples of all means of creativity from jewelry, basketry, sculpture, weaving, cultural items and 2-dimensional art of all kinds — water color, prints, oil and acrylic painting, and photography.
Entries are judged by a juror panel of museum staff, Guild members, and artists of note who decide the winners of ribbons and monetary awards. “Artists are paid 80 percent of their art works sales and for awards received, and our sales records indicate the project has returned almost $520,000 to student artists for sales of their creations,” Taylor says.
As to the originality and quality of the work itself, judge Marcus Monenerkit, a Comanche silver jewelry artist, says, “It ranges from raw to refined, although in terms of expressiveness, I think there are many pieces that do turn your head and make you think about the life or environment of the artist.”
Monenerkit says while he works in a progressive style, student works can be avant garde, but have to be well executed. “I’m interested when I see a young artist bending the rules and creating from sheer energy and emotion. The artist’s personality and sincerity comes out more in these pieces and creating a work from the soul speaks to the audience in ways not always first perceived — because true art is mysterious and affects us in unpredictable ways. The unexpectedness of art is what keeps us coming back.”
See the predictability and unexpectedness of these student works at Heard Museum, April 2-5. For further information, log on to www.heard.org.