Challenging the popular notion that kids view Christmas most viscerally as a list of expectations for Santa, artwork now on display at the Springville Museum of Art reflects the devotional spirit of the holiday through the eyes of children.
The museum's 24th annual Christmas Lamb Show features the work of 70 Utah County students, ages 6-10, from among 350 entries received.
Inspired by the story of "The Christmas Lamb," when a young boy visits an art museum and sees a painting of the baby Jesus — then ultimately learns that the holiday's true meaning comes through giving rather than getting — the contest is open to students from Nebo, Provo and Alpine school districts.
And the exhibit, like several other local devotionally based Christmas events, is free to the public (see accompanying box).
Virgil Jacobsen, the museum's assistant director and curator of education, said the exhibit has become a treasured part of the holiday season for patrons, hundreds of whose children remember what it was like to have their artwork on public display.
Because public schools usually forgo specific teaching about the Christmas story, students' conceptions about the origins of the holiday most often "come from the home," he said.
Some reflect simple concepts: an angel, a manger or a star, usually imbued with personalized symbols like hearts and other decor that hint at an expanded sense of the holiday's meaning.
Other pieces delve much deeper, connecting concepts that are often lost on many adults during the Christmas season.
For example, an entry by sixth-grade student Alison Vance from Rees Elementary in Spanish Fork, could be passed over as a black and white pencil drawing — until viewers look at what is being conveyed.
Her drawing depicts the biblical annunciation to Mary by an angel that she will become the mother of God's son. As Mary listens to the angel's words, images foreshadowing Christ's life are depicted in to the side: a stable, a lamb and a cross, with a crown of thorns and a whip at the base.
The pieces reflect the imagination that stirs within children about topics that have become dear to them, Jacobsen said. "It's part of who and what they are, and art is part of the fun of being a child."
Vicki Gehring, a retired art teacher from Provo's Grandview Elementary and a member of the statewide Art Partnership Committee, said art promotes creative thinking and self-expression. "Most of what kids do in school is very structured and they're told what they are supposed to do.
"As an art teacher, I would just teach them a principle or demonstrate a skill, and what they put on their paper is up to them. … It's a very personal and valuable experience to have that opportunity for ownership and decision-making responsibility over how they will solve the problem of this blank piece of paper."
As with other teachers who offer the opportunity for their students to participate, Gehring said she always offered them an alternative to the Christmas artwork, including the annual Reflections contest.
"I never had any students or any parents complain about the fact that they had opportunity to do religious art in school. I never had any problems with that. It wasn't a forced thing. It was a choice."
Brenda Beyal, an art teacher at Rees Elementary in Spanish Fork, works with a team of three other teachers to provide instruction in visual art, creative dance, music and theater.
"We usually have a lot of kids enter, and we've been told in the past that we really do have high quality artwork," she said of the exhibit. "We can't take credit for the subject matter but we can take credit for teaching them the principles and elements of art that help them communicate their thoughts and emotions about the subjects."
Gehring remembers one student years ago that resisted her attempts to help him create a project. "I'm not going to be an artist," he told her. She explained that art helps you to think creatively and solve problems, and "he did a nice drawing."
She submitted it for a contest at the museum and it was accepted. "I never had trouble with him again. … Even hanging their work in the hallway at school means a lot to them."
David and Ingrid Nemelka of Mapleton have sponsored the show, which runs through Dec. 29, since its inception, offering each student whose piece is displayed a $10 award during an opening reception for the exhibit.
Jacobsen said it's hard to quantify what an event like that means to a small child, but "they'll remember it forever."
Ray Lamb, whose granddaughter's intricate star drawing is part of the exhibit, understands. He was at the museum Thursday with his daughter and two other grandchildren to look at 9-year-old Destine Lamb's work.
"She's called me every night to see whether we've been here to yet," he said. Four-year-old Aspen Cook accompanied her grandfather, and was drawn in by a couple of other students entries that caught her eye.
One by Maile Berg, a second-grader at Freedom Elementary, shows a large Christmas package wrapped with a bow. The lid is tipped off the box, and multicolored hearts are spilling out. The tag on the package reads: "Merry Christmas, Jesus! Love, Maile."