A current display at The Brinton Museum features local artwork. Instead of professionals with decades of experience, though, it shows mostly first-time artists: fifth-graders from various schools in the area.

The fourth consecutive all fifth grade show began Feb. 8 and runs until Feb. 22. The pieces are from most of the Sheridan County elementary schools and Wyola Elementary School and St. Labre Indian School in Montana. The gallery pieces were chosen by art teachers at the respective schools. Each school could submit up to 20 types of artwork for the gallery.

Barb McNab, curator of exhibitions and education at The Brinton, said the two-week display ideally encourages younger students to become more interested in art.

“This is not like putting it up in the school hallway,” McNab said. “They get to come in here for a formal reception with parents and grandparents and teachers. I think, personally, it’s an experience that will stay with them for a very long time. If I had this opportunity when I was in fifth grade, I would’ve just been over the moon.”

McNab said 373 people attended the opening reception during the evening of Feb. 8, the largest number of the four years. She also said this year features the most variety of items. The artwork included silk scarves, masks, handprints, horse effigy necklaces, cloths, paper houses, weavings and drawings.

“It gives these students a great chance to showcase their talents,” McNab said. “…It’s pretty diverse … A wonderful thing to be said for imagination.”

Big Horn Elementary School art teacher Janet Ruleaux agreed.

“Kids just realize how important art is,” Ruleaux said. “It just elevates the fine arts and the appreciation for it.”

Ruleaux had students who submitted silk scarves that they worked on for several hours. She said the most rewarding part is seeing the students’ response to the professional display.

“I hang their art up in the hallways all the time, and they’re kind of used to it, but this is so special for them,” Ruleaux said. “It really is great to see their reactions and the pride.”

Leslea Hunt teaches art at Meadowlark Elementary School and Henry A. Coffeen Elementary School. Her students made decorative cloths and masks.

The fifth-graders only have art for one hour per week, so they started working on the pieces a few months ago. The Sheridan County School District 2 theme this year is African art, and teachers and students worked together to choose what to create within that subject.

Hunt was surprised by some of the end results and enjoyed seeing the students’ meticulous work.

“You think it’s going to go one way and then they totally take it another, totally different way sometimes,” Hunt said. “…They get so much more detailed than I anticipate … They’re so detail-driven and they really hunker down.”

Craig Needles is an art teacher at Sagebrush Elementary School and Woodland Park Elementary School. His students made decorative handprints and Kente cloths.

He had to narrow the selections down to 20 students, which was the toughest part. Needles provides initial guidance but then remains mostly hands-off, allowing students’ creativity to flourish.

“I try to give them some structure and then let them kind of take off from there,” Needles said. “I try to incorporate their own ideas.”

Marty Smith is an art instructor at Highland Park Elementary School, Woodland Park Elementary and Coffeen Elementary.

Smith said the toughest part was encouraging students to apply for the exhibition and put their work out in public for others to see and judge. That can also be the most rewarding aspect, though, and Smith said she enjoyed seeing other teachers or viewers comment on the students’ work.

“It’s just fun to see kids experience that and how their art kind of takes on a life of its own up on the wall,” Smith said. “I think it’s a pretty magical time for them, and I love watching that process happen … It’s not just about what they did, but it’s also about how the work impresses other people or gets them to think of something in their own lives and makes that connection. I’ve heard other teachers say, ‘You know, I didn’t realize that so and so was interested in art’ or there was something in the art that told them more about that student, and so it’s fun to open those doors, too, for other educators.”

Smith also appreciated that the display emphasized connection rather than competition among students.

“It’s not about winning a prize or gaining a lot of attention, so valuing it for the connection that it makes and the fact that you did something that was hard to do and took some guts,” Smith said. “I think they learn something of value there, too … It becomes a much deeper kind of individual reward.”

Hunt concurred.

“I think that really solidifies their love for art and it gives them that confidence boost that they’re totally worthy of being in a museum,” Hunt said. 

The unique display gave many students the chance to have their work featured professionally for the first time. For some, it might be the start of a bright artistic career.