Museum of Northern Arizona's new exhibit When We Were Young features youth art from 1931-1974

Untitled, 1972, etching on paper, Franklin Stewart. Ryan Williams/NHO

Untitled, 1972, etching on paper, Franklin Stewart. Ryan Williams/NHO

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - An exhibit featuring Navajo and Hopi children's art from the 1930s-70s is on display through fall 2016 at the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) featuring around 20 children, some who went on to become professional artists.

The Junior Indian Art Show, originally known as the Junior Art Show, was conceived by MNA co-founder Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton in 1931. As the years progressed, the show focused on children who attended schools on the Navajo, Hopi and Havasupai reservations. The show ended in 1974, according to records.

The exhibit, When We Were Young, was put up in conjunction with the inaugural Youth Fest in May as a testament to MNA's long-term support of art education and Native artists.

MNA Supervisory Archaeologist Jim Collette, and curator for the show, said that the museum has more than 250 pieces of artwork that was displayed during the years of the show. He saw the art pieces as they were being cleaned up in February after they had languished in storage for years.

"It was Mary-Russell [Ferrell Colton's] idea to try and get some youth art eventually from the reservations and have a competitive show," Collette said. "It went on for decades, into the 70s, and was pretty successful."

The junior artists were given a dollar or two as prizes - pretty good money at the time - and the museum purchased some of the pieces. Included in the show is some silver work, kachina dolls and leather work along with the paintings. The ages of the kids was from around six to 18.

"It was certainly a heck of a lot better than I could have done when I was that age," Collette said. "And there was a good diversity to it."

Most of the artwork in the exhibit dates from the 1930-50s.

Some artists who are known to art collectors today who participated in the show and whose work is featured are Delbridge Honanie, Terrance Talaswaima, Hoke Denetsosie and Anthony Honahnie. Other artists included are: Raymond Naha, Tony Begay, Gibson Talahytewa, Ramon Albert Jr., Leroy Kewanyama, Randall "Randy" Sahmie, Swayne "Webb" Polacca, Hansen Twoitsie, Dennis Numkena and Loren Phillips.

Both Honanie and Talaswaima were founders of the artist collective Artist Hopid, along with Neil David Sr., Michael Kabotie and Milland Lomakema.

The museum has adult and youth pieces from Talaswaima. It is the first time the adult pieces have been shown - they were bequeathed to the museum by Margaret Taylor's family after she passed away.

Denetsosie completed his piece when he was around 10-12 in 1934. He went on to do book illustrations, postcards, murals and Christmas plates. One of his well-known works included the "Little Herder" series about Navajo life.

"These are folks that when they were this age they entered the show and they won some prizes and then later on they continued," Collette said.

Most of the art focuses on things about everyday life that struck the kids -like a person weaving, the natural landscape, a pueblo that an artist was familiar with, a person on horseback - very few pieces are abstract or modern. The exhibit includes watercolors, pencil, crayon, chalk and ink drawings, collage, block prints, silk screen and stencils. Three dimensional work includes katsina dolls, weaving, needlework, metalwork, soap and wood carvings, basketry, leatherwork and folk dolls. All of the pieces have been taken out of their original frames, if any, and rematted.

The museum has been able to get information on some of the artists, but some of them may only be known among their family and community members on Navajo and Hopi.

"We do get occasional people who come in and they know who [some of the artists] were," Collette said. "That's one of the good reasons for people who come in from Hopi and Navajo land. You might recognize some of these names and know them."

Most of the artwork has not been on display since they were first shown, which was decades ago. Collette said that if you were a youth in that time it must have been exciting to win a prize and win a few bucks.

"In the 1930s, you bring home two dollars, you're not doing too bad," he said.

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