“As I stand here, I’m looking, and I see a lot of color. To me the color means hope. I really see it,” DeAnn Gardner said, looking about the Bear Gallery. “This place is splashed with color.”

Gardner is the Art Center lead with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, and she was reacting to the annual “Up With Art” show of student art produced in conjunction with the Fairbanks Arts Association. It’s been an unusual school year, with children mostly learning from home and art teachers frequently guiding students over the internet.

Yet the lively collection of works filling the walls and pedestals of the gallery indicated to Gardner that for the kids she and the rest of the district have striven to serve from a distance, “that love of art, that love of color, using those elements of art are still there.”

The Fairbanks Arts Association and the school district have been partnering for over 40 years, and annual the show has long offered students the opportunity to display their pieces in a gallery setting. 

In a normal year, works for the show are chosen by the Art Center, which is staffed by instructors who travel between the district’s far-flung elementary schools, and by art teachers in the middle and high schools. The primary role for FAA has been to provide the gallery space.

But this year it was Fairbanks Arts that put out the call for submissions, letting interested students throughout the district enter one piece of work each. School district art staff were still involved with the show, but Fairbanks Arts played a larger than usual role in collecting the work, executive director Jess Peña said, “which is why this particular exhibit is called Up With Art (Reimagined).”

“Everybody was on the same page because everybody wants to see student artwork up in the gallery right now,” Peña said of the process that brought it all together and the insistence from all parties that the show must go on. “It’s a more important time than ever for young people to be able to connect through the arts and have some moments of celebration.”

Despite a compressed preparation time and the difficulties posed by putting on a show during a pandemic, the result is impressive. Viewers will see works by kids ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, and discover the processes children go through as they learn new ways of expressing themselves through art while mastering an array of techniques and styles.

Works range from drawings and paintings to photography, sculpture, textiles, wood carvings and more. Peña said that while in past years submissions have reflected what students accomplish at school, this time much of it was done at home, meaning there was often more family involvement than usual. “I think that’s a special thing about this year’s show,” she said.

Peña added that where the schools are usually involved with matting and framing, this year students didn’t always have access to the needed supplies. So FAA offered them tips for using materials on hand and simply doing their best, because “we just wanted to get the art through the door.”

Gardner echoed this thought and said that in a way, it makes this year’s show more personalized for the kids. “This show is more their presentation. What they feel is presentable. And that’s teaching them young how to take pride in what they feel should be presented. Because that’s part of the art curriculum. Picking and choosing what you feel is adequate for presentation.”

The kids are certainly enthusiastic. Local artist Somer Hahm, who was in charge of receiving and organizing the works as they were dropped off, said by email, “The kids were so excited! For many, it was their first opportunity to participate in a professional gallery exhibition. Since the call was for FNSB district wide, the charter schools and BEST homeschool were invited to participate this year, different from past ‘Up With Art’ exhibitions. We had an excellent turnout, and are featuring many talented young artists in our community.”

Gardner said the disruptions to normal schooling meant that she and Art Center instructor Heidi Collins were reassigned to specific schools as full time teachers (their Art Center colleague Barbara Santora is on leave). Despite their additional workload, Gardner and Collins created digital art kits for district elementary teachers, and she said art lessons have proven to be valuable despite the extra hurdles.

“The teachers that I speak to, the other arts educators, whether they’re in middle school or high school, they’re doing their very best, through Zoom,” Gardner said, explaining that when class time moves to art, things become calm and relaxed. “It’s been very therapeutic in that way.”

For Peña and Gardner, this is the second year that “Up With Art” has had to compensate for changing circumstances. Last year they needed to find an alternate location since the Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts building where Bear Gallery is located was unexpectedly shut down for repairs. Then the show itself was abruptly ended by the mid-March lockdown. Peña she and FAA associate director Megan Olsen-Saville “frantically photographed over a hundred artworks and I built a website” for the show. “It was a major labor of love. It was a refusal to accept that the student art show was shutting down.”

FAA has grown accustomed to adapting on the fly, especially over the past year, Peña said. So this year, “we didn’t miss a beat.” The insistence on holding the show is indicative of the commitment Fairbanks Arts Association has on encouraging children in the community.

“It was really special to see kids come in holding their artwork and knowing that it was going to be here. It was a good grounding moment of connection for our staff and the young people,” Peña said, adding that after an exhausting year for everyone, “That was definitely a joyful time for our staff to see some very happy kids.”

“Up With Art (Reimagined)” will be on exhibit at the Bear Gallery through March 26. The gallery is on the top floor of the Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts building in Pioneer Park. Bear Gallery is open Mondays through Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. Visit the website at fairbanksarts.org for more information and current COVID-19 safety policies.

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to nobugsinak@gmail.com.