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The City Journals

Cottonwood High’s art collection shows range of talent; began as tribute to former art student

Jul 16, 2021 10:00AM ● By Julie Slama

In the hallways of Cottonwood High, the school’s permanent art collection, which began in 1972, is appreciated by alumni and current students alike. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Cottonwood High senior Kara Bagley was “really excited” when she learned from her art teacher Glen Fuller that her painting “Ballerina on a Settee” was chosen as the Nancy Rosenblatt Memorial Art Award winner and will become part of the school’s permanent collection. 

“It’s a great honor; I never thought I’d get this far,” she said. “I’m so grateful for my teacher supporting me. I always wanted a piece to hang in the hallway.”

Bagley and classmate senior Cali Colton also were selected as Granite School District Rosenblatt art honorees along with two representatives from other schools and displayed a couple pieces at the district art show. 

In addition to her ballerina painting, Bagley included a self-portrait she painted in oil, holding rose-tinted glasses.

“It’s my favorite since I figured out how to use oil paint,” she said.

Colton displayed three pieces—two created in acrylics, an 1800s-style silhouette and a pacemaker tying together art, nature and science; and also, a blue-colored drawing of a classical Greek statue.

By being selected as a Rosenblatt artist, it translates to being a “very accomplished artist.” 

“We take art seriously; they recognize our hard work we put in at school and we want some sort of future involving art,” Colton said.

Both girls submitted portfolios for their Advanced Placement art class. Colton has a scholarship to Brigham Young University to pursue a pre-illustration major and Bagley will attend the University of Utah to study both business and art.

Colton said the appreciation and education for art she received at Cottonwood is unmatched.

“Not a lot of schools value art as much as Cottonwood,” she said. “The administration appreciates what the students and teachers do.”

This is apparent as almost every year, there is an administrative purchase—or sometimes a couple—to add to the art collection that numbers more than 200, said Principal Terri Roylance about the collection that is catalogued and securely mounted in the school building.

“I believe that it is wonderful to have a history of student artwork in our school; we are very lucky to have such strong teachers and exceptional students,” Roylance said adding that she “agonizes” over which ones to select and makes the decision with other administrators and the art faculty. “It’s a collection where someone can come in and see such great talent of our students.”

Although the collection has been proudly embraced by administrators, teachers and the student body, it came about through a tragic accident, said Bill Laursen, a retired Cottonwood art teacher who began teaching shortly afterward in 1972.

“Between her junior and senior year, a girl was hit by a drunk driver and killed just a few blocks from the school,” he said. “She was an artist, and she was going to be the student director of the yearbook that year. Her family wanted to start a memorial award on her behalf.”

According to a Salt Lake Tribune article about the accident, Rosenblatt was an accomplished artist, having displayed her oil and watercolor paintings at the University of Utah. She also was involved in the school, serving as the school’s literary magazine, a member of the ecology club, treasurer of the French Club and was on the stage production crew. 

A memorial to Rosenblatt along with her photograph is in the hallway, and while none of her artwork is displayed, her legacy is the collection, Laursen said. 

“It’s her legacy and she never lived to see it, but her family did, and they realize the impact of that,” he said.

The Rosenblatt Award is a cash award that is given to an outstanding Cottonwood student in their senior year who plans to pursue an art career. A piece of the winner’s artwork is purchased and added to the Cottonwood Art Collection, he said.

“It’s a combination of the art department recommends, and then, the administrators come and voice their opinion and vote for which artists they would like to present or have the award,” he said, adding that students’ artwork is showcased in an annual student art show each spring. “Pretty soon, we had students approach us in the art department (saying) ‘I would like to either gift a piece of artwork to the permanent collection, or have mine considered,’ which we were glad to do. Kids were encouraged to do it in that they could leave something behind, a positive reminder that they were a student at the school and in a lot of ways, it’s like athletics have a lot of trophy cases. For art students, it’s a painting or piece of artwork hanging in the school.”

John Fackrell, who worked alongside Laursen for a number of years, said the artwork is more personal than a trophy.

“That’s the cool thing about these; it’s not some plastic brass coated thing that no one knows what went into it,” he said. “When you look at a drawing or a painting, and you’re just standing there in awe, you’re saying, ‘a lot went into this’ whether it was with a brush or a pencil. So, to me, that’s unique and that’s not the case with the shape of a cup and it’s not in a case. It’s out there for everyone to enjoy.”

While Fackrell estimates less than 10% of his former students have a professional art career, he believes art still is a part of their lives.

“It’s maybe kind of like professional sports. How many high school baseball players go on to play National League Baseball? I would say under 10% , maybe 5%,” he said. “The rest of them, I’m sure they still love art, and they might dabble in it. It may be a hobby. It might be something that now they collect.”

While current students enjoy the artwork that line their school hallways, library and offices, the former teachers—including Fuller, who retired this year—know the collection’s back pieces and the efforts to include diversity in the artwork.

“When I walk up and down the hall, I really don’t see the artwork,” Laursen said. “I see the face of the students that did it and I remember them doing every single piece; I remember its conception and the students who worked on it and how proud they were of their art and how much work they put into it.”

He recalled the first award-winner, Shauna Tilly. “That painting that was purchased that first year is still there, of course. It’s a winterscape, an old house out in a snowy field” to an international student from Russia, named Rosana, who “came to the school not speaking a word of English and went around all day with the little red dictionary. She became one of our top artists and her piece is in the collection.”

There’s a painting of a child holding a yellow umbrella in the rain by Caroline Lund.

“The girl that did that was legally blind; she never learned to drive,” Laursen said. “She danced in the school musical, but she had to be close enough to other dancers so her fingertips could touch them, so she knew where she was in the chorus. When she would work on her project, she was literally three inches away from it. She never told me that was the situation until I asked her. She said it was the only way I can see anything. She worked so hard; she was not going to be deterred by something so small as blindness.”

Then, there’s a colored pencil drawing of a Pontiac convertible hanging across from the theater. 

“If you look closely, he put some words in the license plate in the front of the car, which was ‘thank you CHS’ because our program meant so much to him; he was such a talented kid,” Laursen said. 

He remembered Angela Black who created a portrait of three horse heads.

“She didn’t want to sell it. She said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done,’” Laursen said.

He pointed out to her that thousands of people would see her artwork at the high school. After reconsidering, she allowed the horse artwork to stay at the school and later told him it was the best decision she ever made.

Fackrell said that he remembers telling students, “If you’ve done it once, chances are you can do something that good again.” 

He remembers Liberty Tutafu. “She was Polynesian. She was a great, really, really, good artist. The school purchased her work every year she was there—sophomore, junior and senior.”

When considering artwork, the teachers and administrators look for diversity.

“I wanted it to be a multicultural situation that students could find something in the artwork that they related to,” Laursen said, using Vinnie Lopez’s picture of a late 1940’s red Cadillac with “a lot of chrome” as an example.

“He was in his senior year; he was not getting more motivated as the year drew to a close. I said ‘I’ll make you a deal. You finish this portrait of your Cadillac and you get an A in the class. If you don’t finish it, you get an F.’ It would appeal to many kids who are interested in low-rider cars so that’s why I wanted Vinnie’s Cadillac to be on the wall, so everybody is included as much as possible.”

Fackrell said that as the collection grew and more styles of art was offered in the department, they also looked to include different mediums, such as tile, print, watercolor, oil, splash acrylic, colored pencil, stained glass, collage and others.

The dedication of Cottonwood High’s art students goes back to its roots in the 1970s when Laursen took students almost annually to New York City to learn more about the arts. In the 1980s and 1990s, students could letter in art and a framing shop was created to teach students how to professionally frame their artwork. 

Nowadays, students on the school arts council creates opportunities for students to work on their own art projects or be introduced to new mediums, said Anna Hexem, incoming SBO president and arts council member.

“The first time I came here before ninth grade, I looked around and said, ‘Holy crap. This is the coolest place.’ It inspired me to do art; I’ve never wanted to leave the art room.’”

Laursen remembers seeing younger students after seeing a matinee production of the theater department and watched their teacher point out a piece of artwork of a woman with a scarf holding a rooster and tell them that it was created by a former student at their school.

“They couldn’t believe it that one of their own had a piece of artwork hanging on this school wall. I thought, this is where the appreciation comes in, these kids come over at this age and in a few years, they’ll be going to high school and they can see some opportunities and possibilities,” he said.

As the collection grew, people began commenting on the artwork, Laursen said.

“No one believed that high school students had done it,” he said, adding that not even the students nor the parents realized its value at the time. “I had parents come to parent-teacher conferences or call me and say, ‘I can’t get my kids to come up out of the basement to have dinner. They’re down there working on that artwork all the time.’ So, when I walk up and down the hallways and see this art, I have this feeling of pride of what these kids had accomplished, and they didn’t really realize how good it actually was.”