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Founder reflects on 50 years of the Wyoming State High School Art Symposium

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Retired art teacher Tim Collins strolled through the sea of artworks and mingled with generations of students and teachers Friday at the Casper Events Center.

He took in the nearly 4,500 pieces of art on display there for the Wyoming State High School Art Symposium, the annual showcase he started five decades ago.

“If we have an art show, will you show up?” he’d asked fellow teachers around the state.

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Students from 16 schools arrived with a few hundred artworks for first Wyoming High School Art Symposium in 1968 at Laramie High School, where he taught, Collins recalled.

The Wyoming State High School Art Symposium this weekend celebrated its 50th year. Collins joined many other educators and state officials there in sharing the event’s history and growth through the decades.

This year’s symposium showcased work from more than 1,500 students around Wyoming. They participated in workshops and met college recruiters while competing for ribbons, scholarships and chances to land their artworks in exhibitions from the the Wyoming governor’s mansion to Washington D.C.

It all started with Collins’ idea for students around the state to showcase their art in a culminating event, he said.

“The whole scope of it has just opened up,” Collins said. “Now it’s a learning event.”

Memories and milestones

Retired art teacher Kathleen Clymer was a student of Collins who traveled to Rock Springs in 1969 for her first art symposium as a Laramie High School junior.

She gained confidence and skill as a teen through creating and showcasing her art, she said, as she reminisced with her former teacher.

Later, she brought her own students from Glenrock, Burlington and Green River as the event continued to grow. Many found encouragement from the blue ribbon stickers that art teachers place on the tags of outstanding pieces. Seeing what hundreds of their peers created often sparked students’ creativity and motivation to work harder, she added.

“It was an amazing thing when you brought home those ribbons, and kids were recognized for art just like they may have been recognized for athletics,” Clymer said. “And that had never happened prior to this show.”

Clymer is a past president of the Wyoming Secondary Art Educators, comprised of teachers who organize the event each year. She recalled debates about including taxidermy and computer graphics, which now are recognized art forms at the symposium. When she taught computer graphics in the 1980s, she explained that her students learned the same elements and principles of design used in drawing or painting.

Teachers past and present recounted a major early milestone for the symposium when Collins convinced Wyoming High School Activities Association officials to add the event to the activities calendar, so schools could budget travel costs. Now every school in the state can participate, Collins said.

The symposium outgrew venues from high schools and around the state to the Wyoming State Fairgrounds in Douglas before moving to the Casper Events Center, educators recounted.

Early art symposiums featured a few mediums including painting, drawings and ceramics, Collins said. On Friday, he admired the art created in materials from taxidermy to computer-generated images, and expressing ideas from personal, political and moral topics.

“I thought it would be wonderful to be teaching now,” Collins said, “because you can spend two days just walking with your kids talking about things where they would really learn.”

Into the future

A few Powell High School students adjusted a life-size unicorn bust and colt at the symposium Friday near a poster illustrating the taxidermy techniques used to create the piece. The equine figures covered in shimmering glass and lights was a months-long class project to illustrate a point.

“There’s been a lot of stories going around the U.S. that taxidermy is not an art,” Powell student John Moore said. “So we figured we’d have a little rebuttal to that by making art with taxidermy forms and then putting a different medium on top of it.”

He and several classmates answered questions about the unicorns and other taxidermy pieces on display.

Campbell County High School senior Kennedy Schomer gave a thumbs up and grinned for a photo as she showed her mother one of her blue ribbons. She also enjoyed reactions her pieces drew, including one addressing the national debate of arming teachers in schools.

“Something I’ve learned that art can do is not only evoke my emotion and get it out there, but also it relates to other people,” she said. “You evoke so many emotions and they get so passionate about it.”

Collins has faith the Wyoming High School Art Symposium will continue to grow with more opportunities for students to learn and create in ways yet to imagined.

“Fifty years from now, they’re going to be having the 100th,” Collins said Friday to a group of retired and current teachers. “Kids will be back here as administrators, art teachers, moms, dads and maybe even grandparents — and if they’re going to show up, I’m going to show up too.”