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Students get an eyeful in Vegas

Utah teens wowed by masterpieces, warm welcome

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LAS VEGAS — Yes, there were a few steamy billboards. No, none of Utah Valley's sons and daughters set foot in the casinos.

And when two chartered buses returned 101 students, parents and friends from Sin City to Art City at 4 a.m. Wednesday, the controversial trip to museums at hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip was deemed a success.

"I saw a van Gogh and a Monet on the same day," said Katie Hamblin, a junior at Provo's Timpview High School, as she rubbed sleep from her eyes. "I'm in shock. It's the best day of my life."

Hamblin was one of about 20 students from Timpview, Spanish Fork and South Summit high schools who joined the privately arranged trip after the Nebo school board refused requests from Springville High School's Russian Club and art history students to sanction a tour of two major international art exhibits.

The works of art managed to overwhelm a debate that pitted some Utah members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against thousands of Las Vegas-area LDS faithful who were offended by the portrayal of their city as unfit for teenage eyes.

Students gazed on the exhibits with awed intensity, struck by the craftsmanship and history displayed just inches from their faces.

At the Bellagio's Gallery of Fine Art, the tour group viewed three of the elaborate stone-and-gem Easter eggs created for Russian Tsar Nicholas II by Carl Faberge, considered by many the world's finest jeweler. One of the eggs, carved out of jade stone and hollowed, included miniature portraits, painted on ivory, of the Tsar's five children, including the little girl Anastasia.

Ten years after the egg was commissioned, Lenin had the family executed as part of the Bolshevik revolution that launched the Soviet Union.

At the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at the Venetian, the students stood within inches of paintings by van Gogh, Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Bristles from Claude Monet's paintbrush were visible in his 1886 "Haystack at Giverny."

The tourists also met a living, breathing piece of work, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who welcomed them and attacked what he said was narrow-minded thinking about his city. When a Utah TV reporter clipped a microphone to his suitcoat, he referred to a year-old claim that Olympic organizers prepared for the 2002 Winter Games by shoving problems on Las Vegas.

"Salt Lake City?" Goodman bellowed. "Get out of here. You send us your homeless, but you won't send us your children."

Clearly gearing up for a re-election bid that begins next week, Goodman labeled Nebo's decision "xenophobic" and lumped it together with the NFL, which he called hypocritical for refusing to run the city's ads during the upcoming Super Bowl because the league doesn't want to be associated with gambling.

Of course, it was the lewd pamphlets available for free in newsstands on many Las Vegas street corners and hawked by men along The Strip that in large part led Nebo's school board to vote 3-2 against the day trip.

The parents who arranged the trip said they hope their children glean the right message from the battle with the school board.

"I want my kids to realize that I'm going to stand up for what I believe and what I as a parent believe is right for them," said Patrice Bolen, whose 16-year-old twin sophomores Mike and Mitch are in the Russian Club. "I want them to know they don't have to sit back when injustices are done, that they can act to resolve them."

Another parent apologized to Goodman and the people of Las Vegas for what he called hurtful comments made by school board members. Paul McSweeney, whose daughter, Jessica, is president of Springville's Russian Club and was one of eight McSweeneys on the trip, finished his speech at City Hall to a standing ovation after he said, "Viva, Las Vegas."

The tour cost $3,963, which was raised in less than a week, McSweeney said. Each member of the group paid $30. The rest was made up of private donations, including a steep discount on one of the buses provided by Bill Greenhalgh, an Orem man who owns Discovery Coaches and only charged the group for fuel.

"I don't know how Faberge did it," said Robert Winfree, a Springville High School junior taking AP art history. "For $30, I got a great deal."

The exhibit at the Venetian, "Art Through the Ages: Masterpieces of Painting from Titian to Picasso," is the first collaboration of three famous international museums — the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, Austria; and the Guggenheim Museum in New York — and traces the development of Western paintings over 600 years.

Elizabeth Lee, a Springville sophomore, said the exhibits were worth the 20-hour round trip and the battle with the school board.

"I can't believe they wanted to keep us from that," she said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It was breathtaking."

Lee said the school board should have trusted teachers and chaperones, not to mention the students themselves.

"We didn't come to look at the billboards," she said. "We came to look at the art. We have not been tainted. Our eyes have not been scarred. We're all better off because we came."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com