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Utah artist and U. art students help local kids build 'Wings to Fly'

In his first federal budget plan since taking office, President Donald Trump recently announced plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Collectively, these agencies provide financial support to museums, galleries and cultural institutions across the nation, comprising nearly $300 million annually. While presidents have previously suggested discretionary cuts to this budget — which accounts for a small fraction of the federal government’s $1.1 trillion elective spending, according to the New York Times — Trump is the first to advocate a total elimination of funding.

With mounting economic uncertainty, local artists and cultural organizations are hard-pressed to discover new and innovative ways to bring art to the people.

Artist and instructor Céline Downen has crafted a unique collaborative project, titled “Beehive Works” designed to bring art to school children, the results of which are on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art through Aug. 5.

Downen, who teaches in the University of Utah’s art department, wanted to give her students an opportunity to craft hands-on art workshops. Downen tapped students in her art community class to design activities for school children at the Glendale Library west of downtown Salt Lake City, a popular afterschool hangout for many of the kids in the area, according to the museum’s press release.

The students spent four weeks crafting diverse workshops for the children.

“(I asked my students) to think about not only the project, but the materials used, the educational value and how the completed pieces would work in a museum setting,” Downen said.

What resulted was a remarkable exploration of individual identity and creativity, and the creation of what the participants deemed a more readily identifiable community space.

“Beehive Works” showcases the results of the student-led workshops, presenting touching and tactile remnants of their collective effort.

Distinct from the collaborative project and placed near the museum’s entrance is “Honey and Cherry Blossoms,” a mixed media work of embroidered men’s shirts, aspen lead-dyed fabric and stamped gauze. Here, Downen uses a decidedly personal artistic process, “to map a personal and artistic journey to find my own place.”

The title, she said, “comes from the symbol of Utah, the beehive. It represents industry, working together. That connection is what makes strong communities. I believe everybody has gifts and talents that they can bring to the table to really help build a strong community, and that is what I think about in both my collaborative and personal work.”

The exhibition continues on the west wall of the museum’s upper floor. In addition to a video that showcases excerpts from the workshops, the exhibition contains a colorful variety of works produced by the participants, including weaving, stamping and printmaking.

The examples reveal the students’ equal emphasis on instruction and inspiration, as each method of art-making carries with it an educational element, yet leaves ample room for individual exploration.

In a collection titled, “World of Weaving,” children were asked to use weaving to express themselves and their cultural heritage. A vertical sculpture showcases this process, as, according to the label, “natural and synthetic elements come together (for) each child creates a triangle as unique as they are. The individual triangles combine to make a collaborative piece, just as the people in our city form a unique and diverse community.”

Another collection titled, “Recycled Stamps” demonstrates the results of teaching children to use household items such as vegetables, fruit and cardboard to create distinctive images. Similarly, “Library Lithography” instructed the children about longstanding printmaking methods with the use of aluminum foil lithography, and “Piece by Piece” presents a collection of small cardboard houses.

Lastly, “Wings to Fly” is an interactive collection of individual feathers, independently crafted by children and community members to form two open wings. Viewers are also invited to participate and create a feather of their own.

With a growing lack of prioritization for arts funding and curriculum development in schools, children are increasingly less likely to engage in high-quality arts education.

While such figures have led many to worry, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. In its simple, yet touching earnestness, “Beehive Works” evidences the possibilities of how a truly artistic community may function.

If you go …

What: Céline Downen, “Beehive Works”

Where: Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple

When: Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a..m.-9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.

Phone: 801-328-4201


Scotti Hill is an art historian and law student at S.J. Quinney College of Law, where she specializes in intellectual property. She's taught courses in art history at Westminster College and the University of Utah, and works as a freelance art critic