Backstage at the 2024 Utah Arts Festival: Kids’ Art Yard to feature impressive array of hands-on activities focusing on the Great Salt Lake

In recent years, many artists and creative producers have been building a critical mass of public awareness about the Great Salt Lake and its existential crisis. In 2023, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company premiered an evening-length dance theater piece, To See Beyond Our Time. Earlier this year, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art presented an impressive multidisciplinary exhibition, As The Lake Fades.

Making Waves for Great Salt Lake Artist Collaborative, directed by Nan Seymour, Sarah May and Therese Berry, has orchestrated a daily vigil (among other activities and projects) during three consecutive legislative sessions at the Utah Capitol. Participants held up cyanotype waves colored in blue and turquoise with handprints on them, as they walked and danced. For art projects in elementary schools, the Audubon society chapters of Great Salt Lake and Bridgerland have coordinated small grants to cover the expenses for building puppets designed by artist Therese Berry. The puppet templates include avocet, brine shrimp, brine fly, eared grebe and other species important in the Great Salt Lake habitat.

The theme for this year’s Art Yard for kids at the Utah Arts Festival is the Great Salt Lake and the participating local arts, cultural and community institutions this year are offering the most extensive programming in the history of the Art Yard, along with make-and-take projects that resonate with the theme.

One of the sculptures from upcycled materials made by eighth grade students at Wasatch Charter School for Art Yard, Utah Arts Festival. Photo Credit: Margaret Willis.

While the lake’s alarmingly low levels have persisted, Margaret Willis, who is in her 18th year as coordinator of the Art Yard, said that finding the resolve to make decisions that help restore lake levels and bring back the biodiversity of wildlife which depends on the lake is “something that is still in our hands.” While some might feel that the lake’s crisis is not as urgent because of two consecutive winters of decent precipitation and those have only marginally improved the conditions, there are no guarantees that future years will be so beneficial. As Willis added, the Great Salt Lake is always a timely issue. 

As The Utah Review has noted previously, in quoting a social media post that Darren Parry, a local Shoshone Tribe leader, wrote: “Saving the Great Salt Lake is not a science problem, but a values problem.” Parry added that the acknowledgment of the Lake as as our “nonhuman kinfolk,” which Parry recalled how his grandmother referred to it, consequently inspires engagement, collaboration and networking through creative expression as the most constructive way of humanizing — without overtly politicizing — the larger social and cultural dynamics why the crisis deserves our urgent attention.

This project is directed by the Making Waves for Great Salt Lake Artist Collaborative, directed by myself, Sarah May, and Therese Berry. Therese designed the pelican costume in the photographs and wore it on the day the children visited the Capitol. Sarah directed the making of the cyanotype waves. Photo Credit: Anna Pocaro Photography.

Willis added that “kids are a great bridge” for enriching these connections and possibilities for awareness and engagement. The most enduring characteristic of the Art Yard is how Willis and the team have emphasized the value of upcycled materials — one that pops with incredible bursts of do-it-yourself and imaginative take-home projects. Many parents are overjoyed to discover that these activities do not overburden their pocketbooks. Reiterating a point from previous years: creative activities do not have to break the bank and they are sensitive to being smart and responsible about the environment. Furthermore, parents and kids can easily replicate these projects at home. Consequently, this reinforces being sensitized to the significance of understanding why the lake’s natural habitat should be restored and sustained.

To set the foundation for this year’s Art Yard, Willis has developed numerous hands-on activities. They include an Antelope Island art installation, where kids are invited to add bison, antelope, birds, and other animals to a tiny version of this island. Kids will decorate sculptures created with upcycled materials by eighth grade students at Wasatch Charter School. Kids will make flags representing birds and brine shrimp, by using materials such as salt, watercolor, and mud, which they can then decorate. She also has created pages for a Giant Great Salt Lake Coloring Book, made from recycled signage that also was used to design the entrance to this year’s Art Yard.

A giant coloring book page made from old signage, Art Yard, Utah Arts Festival. Photo Credit: Margaret Willis

A prominent addition this year is The Dear Pelican Project, coordinated by Making Waves for Great Salt Lake, which is supported by Friends of Great Salt Lake, and the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. The impetus for the project arose recently when the usual thousands of American White Pelicans did not return in 2023 to nest on Gunnison Island. The reason was that record low lake levels meant that the pelicans could not safety nest there for fear of being exposed to predators. In 2024, only about one-tenth of the usual population of pelicans returned to Gunnison Island and most were seen trying to build their nests on Hat Island. Kids will join in folding origami of American White Pelicans, a project that was started by teacher Josh Craner and his sixth grade students at Emerson Elementary. The goal is 10,000 and the students already have folded 2,445.

Seymour said that artistic responses are essential to repairing and resolving the crisis of relationship, especially as we culturally lost our way about our kinship with the lake, as Parry noted. Seymour added that through the arts, we can find our way back, by acknowledging that the lake is “a creator, not a commodity; the center, not the periphery, and that the life of the lake is inseparable from our own.” 

One of the sculptures from upcycled materials made by eighth grade students at Wasatch Charter School for Art Yard, Utah Arts Festival. Photo Credit: Margaret Willis.

A point that is amplified in venues such as the Utah Arts Festival and the Art Yard, in particular, is that one does not have to be a professional in the arts community to participate in cultural endeavors. In Craner’s class, for example, the Dear Pelican Project became tangible for the students through hands-on art activities along with writing poetry, while learning about the lake and its most important biological characteristics and the impact on our own quality of life.

Other themed activities include Make Salt Lake, where volunteers will guide kids in making paper plate seagulls, which many will discover is an easy craft to make at home. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts will give kids the opportunity to create a watercolor of the Great Salt Lake, which includes using a technique with salt for purposes of effect. Tree Utah’s project will show kids how to work wjth salt dough for creating tree shapes and imprints using branches, pinecones, and stamps. Participants will take their projects home in a to-go “bag”/container, to air dry at home. The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) will give kids a paper template to cut out their brine shrimp body, add feather “feet”, and a pipe cleaner to create a wearable brine shrimp, using pink and orange colors along with images and black markers to modify designs. The Visual Art Institute will have supplies to make pendants in the shape of the lake, incorporating images and patterns suggested by the habitat that relies on the lake to thrive.

An Art Yard staple returns: Summerhays Music Centers Instrument Petting Zoo. Summerhays is the state’s oldest family-owned music store, which opened in 1936. School of Rock also will be on hand for its own petting zoo featuring rock music instruments. In the City Library Auditorium, a Fear No Film hourlong program for kids will screen daily during the festival at 12:15 p.m. The films are open to the public and do not require a festival ticket.

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