"Have You Ever Seen a Rainbow at Night?" What an intriguing title for the art exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. But everyone knows you can't see rainbows at night. That is, everyone except Navajo children taught by Bruce Hucko. They see them all the time - thanks to their teacher, Hucko, who triggers their imagination.
Fourteen years ago, Hucko began teaching art and photography at Montezuma Creek Elementary School. It wasn't long before a 10-year-old girl walked up to him and asked, "Have you ever seen a rainbow at night?"Hucko thought about it and answered, "No, I don't think I ever have. Have you?"
"Yes," she said. "Last night."
Through that experience, Hucko began to discover that children have the ability "to see into our world in ways that we cannot; in short, to make the invisible visible."
He also learned that "children are not empty vessels waiting to be filled by teachers. Children are overflowing with ideas and images that need guidance and channels for expression."
As Hucko learned to guide children to utilize their own self-expression, he was not immune to mistakes.
One time, he tried to talk to a young artist about the composition and meaning of his paint-ing.
"Don't talk to me about it. Talk to it," the boy said. "It's talking to you. Do you hear?"
As time progressed, Hucko began learning ways to remove obstacles between a child and his imagination, he found that this could be done through "gentle nudging, guidance through skill development, encouragement and a process for them to attach their thinking to that maintains their integrity."
"Getting children involved in art is like casting the stone in a pond. Start with a simple skill and the child will gradually make his way to shore through an expanding and spiraling pool of divergent skills, ideas and process."
Hucko has learned to motivate children effectively by questioning and maintaining a continuing dialogue throughout each art project. He says exposing children to multiple concepts jars their imaginations. "Often, the student will choose none of the concepts I have suggested. Instead, the student develops an idea that overwhelms me."
He knows that the process of teaching art requires that children look closely at who they are and in what they believe in. Then they can work those findings into imagery, both visual and verbal. The results will be a fusion of the old and new where each element is valid and lends strength to the others in making the total composition dynamic.
As you walk through the exhibit in UMFA, you'll be amazed at the highly diversified styles and subject matter on display. Each student, no matter how old, has made a personal statement through art.
Interestingly enough, the rainbow image surfaces frequently. But that's not unusual. Rainbows have a lot of significance among the Navajos. They symbolize the blessing of the gods, prayer, and an intermediary between man and deity. They believe that rainbows are used by the gods as vehicles for travel.
But there's a wealth of other imagery as well. In fact, it's a fascinating mixture of two cultures - traditional tribal and contemporary American. Don't be surprised when you see a grand piano next to a teepee, animals showing off punk haircuts and Mickey and Minnie Mouse vacationing in Monument Valley.
Accompanying the colorful artworks are quotes by the young Navajo artists who painted them. These quotes are extremely valuable, since they provide the viewer with keen insight into the children's creative processes as well as the meaning of their imagery.
Melissa Cleveland, 7, talks about her tempera painting, "Navajo Indians." She says, "The Indians are going to America and they want to go to Red Mesa Church. They are coming out of the church. And they made a rug - all kinds of rugs . . . "
In her painting "Wonderful Shapes," Eugenia Capitan, 11, explains, "All of the ideas came from my mind, except the eagle. It came from a picture, but I didn't draw the whole body. The piano, vase and teepee are things I like."
When creating "Cultural Mountain," Rolland D. Lee, 12, remembers, "When I started I didn't have the faintest idea of what it was going to look like. When I start to do things, ideas come to me. I make decisions of what and what not to do."
Hucko's approach to teaching art strongly parallels that of Viktor Lowenfeld, an art educator/writer whose book "Creative and Mental Growth" first came out in 1947, followed by other editions. Over the years, this book has made a definite impact on art education. Unfortunately, only a relatively small percentage of art teachers are aware of - and practice - his philosophy.
Some art teachers are indifferent to art. Others are well-meaning but unknowingly teach stereotyped art activities that destroy creativity rather than nourish it.
"Too many classroom art teachers are trained in cottonball snowmen - a follow-what-I-do approach. It should be called an exercise in following directions rather than an exercise in art," Hucko says.
"Classrooms usually fail because they don't go to the final step, which is applying the child's skill to imagery of the child's own creation."
Navajo children at Montezuma Creek Elementary School are some of the lucky ones. Under Hucko's expert art teaching, their imaginations have soared. They are among the privileged few who see rainbows at night.
This exhibition of works by Navajo children continues through Dec. 20 in Gallery 1 of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 581-7332. A 15-minute video on the art of Navajo children is available for viewing in the gallery. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 2-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
A public reception and gallery talk by Bruce Hucko is scheduled at 3 p.m. today in the gallery. Hucko will also teach a workshop "Children's Art - Opening a Personal Cultural Window" on Tuesday, Nov. 3, from 4-6 p.m. at the museum.