Annual youth exhibit open at Petaluma Arts Center

Anyone who is interested in the future of art ‒ curious about what tomorrow might bring to the worlds of painting, drawing, photography and sculpture ‒ might want to look closely at the work that is already being produced by the young artists of today. For the next several weeks, that kind of enlightening glimpse ahead is exactly what awaits art-loving visitors to the Petaluma Arts Center.

Every March, the Arts Center team observes international Youth Art Month with a grand annual exhibition titled Art Connects Us. A visual demonstration of the ways that creativity can bring people from diverse backgrounds and world views together, the Arts Center’s sprawling students-only show ‒ vividly illuminating the walls and display blocks of the two gallery spaces ‒ is described by co-curators Lisa Lightman and Leslie Ihrig as “a month of celebration, awareness and advocacy for art in our schools.”

The 2024 Art Connects Us exhibit opened last Thursday, March 14, with a well-attended artists’ reception that welcomed hundreds of visitors. The show, open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, will run through Saturday, April 20.

A major appeal of the perennial exhibition, of course, is the depth of talent on lavish display, from detailed sketches and paintings to whimsical sculptures and exuberant handcrafts. Around 100 pieces are included in the show, representing 31 public and private schools in and around Petaluma, featuring all levels from kindergarten to 12th Grade.

Walking through the gallery, one might easily experience a pleasant whiplash effect. In the space of a few feet, visitors will find themselves beholding the lighthearted joy of a magic mushroom forest built from clay, cardboard and wood (thanks to the 3rd and 4th grade students of Spring Hill School), only to pivot abruptly into the gruesomely gorgeous, intensely visceral death-meditation “The Divine Punishment,” an acrylic painting by 18-year-old Camille Stinson. Look in one direction and you’ll see a quintet of bright marker-pen interpretations of a vase of flowers, each one titled “Spring,” the smile-inducing work of Paxton Kirk, Henry Adams, Ava Rooney, Owen Fong and Ameera Lee, all age 9. Look the other way, and behold 18-year-old Esme Ahmad’s breathtaking black-and-white pencil sketch titled “Heaven and Hell,” using a clever mirror effect to fuse the facial features of an eternally resting nun and a bleached skull, joined together by the gaping jaws and teeth they share.

There is, in short, a lot to see.

Another significant attribute of the show, of course, is how it illustrates the importance of art education for Petaluma youth. It’s a wall-to-wall demonstration of how art instruction not only builds and encourages creativity, but actively imparts important skills such as problem solving, careful observation, clear communication and group participation.

“This is our favorite show of the year,” said Ihrig, the Arts Center’s chair of education, addressing the crowd alongside Lightman, the Center’s current chair of exhibitions. “As a retired Petaluma City schoolteacher, I am incredibly proud to be part of this amazing exhibition.”

Though the show’s emphasis is on building a sense of community among its young artists, ribbons are awarded each year in First, Second, Third and Honorable Mention categories.

“This year, our focus was on aesthetic considerations and emotions,” said Ihrig, going on to announce First Place awardee Esme Ahmed and Second Place awardee Alexi Navarro, with Third Place going to Aaron Dressel and Honorable Mention going to Cypress Encinas. “As always,” added Ihrig, “there were so many worthy pieces, making this decision was a real challenge.”

Over the course of the show’s month-long run time, local schools will be taking field trips to the Arts Center, with over 200 students currently signed up to visit the exhibit, according to Ihrig.

Youth Art Month ‒ originally named Children’s Art Month ‒ is held every March, overseen in part by the National Art Education Association. The annual program began in 1961, founded by the Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc., formerly called the Crayon, Water Color & Craft Institute, Inc. With a stated goal of emphasizing the value of art for all children, the yearly observation was renamed Youth Art Month in 1969, to incorporate all students through the end of high school.

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