Yreka student art show gives high school students the ins and outs of gallery duties

Skip Descant
Special to the Siskiyou Daily News

At first glance is the alluringly complex interior view of a cockpit, with its dials, controls and pilots. Then, a burning landscape can be glimpsed. And it starts to feel familiar. 

“This was conceived in the summertime, when we were all really feeling the seriousness of where we lived,”  reflected Nathan Chismar, who teaches fine art at Yreka High School, explaining the “Untitled” Collaborative Class Mural painted by 15 high school art students.

The piece, an arrangement of panels five across and three high, is the centerpiece of “Lost and Found,” an exhibit of student work hanging at Liberty Arts Contemporary and Fine Art Gallery in downtown Yreka.

Liberty Arts Gallery presents an exhibition of student work from May 12 through June 16 at 108 W. Miner St. in Yreka.

“I wanted to connect to the community more,” said Chismar, explaining the mural’s sense of depicting scenes from the 2022 McKiney Fire. “And this can show how art connects to everything.”

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 The McKinney Fire, which ignited on July 29 just outside Yreka, would go on to burn through more than 60,130 acres. Four civilian lives were lost, as well as at least 118 homes. All told, 185 structures were destroyed, according the Siskiyou County Office of Emergency Services, largely in the community of Klamath River. 

The show featuring student art work at Liberty Arts will run through June 16 and is the first event like it in about a decade, say gallery officials. Chismar approached the Liberty Arts gallery two years ago about a high school art exhibit. 

“And we didn’t see anything until we met this week,” said Kim Presley, who serves on the Liberty Arts board as chief financial officer, speaking at the show’s opening reception May 12.

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“I’m maybe the newest member of the this community in this room right now. So it’s an honor to be so warmly accepted and bringing everybody together for the students and their artwork,” Chismar told the gallery, packed with students, family, friends and members of Yreka art community. This Chismar’s third year at YHS. 

The exhibit was conceptualized as a teaching tool, exposing the students to the ins and outs of the gallery experience, including lighting and other tricks of the trade. 

“When they came in yesterday to put up the name tags, we had it all lit up and they walked in and thought, 'wow!' And that’s what I was waiting to hear,” said Ashley Fisher, the gallery’s new exhibition director. The student exhibit was her first show in the space.

The project was also intended to teach — some might say, demand — something about deadlines. 

“I painted this at 2 a.m. the day before,” said Matthew Helweg, 15, a freshman living in Grenada, remarking on his piece in the collaborative student mural. He’d somehow, inexplicably, lost his first painting. 

“They really liked the deadline,” said Chismar. “And there’s nothing better than a deadline for high schoolers.”

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“And this was a hard deadline,” he stressed. 

The students have been on a multi-year journey with Chismar. The first 18 months was devoted to exploring the craft of art — its technical and creative side. At the end of last year, Chismar informed the students about the upcoming show, then a year away. 

The plan was for each student to produce one dedicated piece for the show, with a couple of other gallery-ready pieces. 

However, the idea for the mural was formed last summer.

“I was thinking about my students this summer. Here we are, getting ready to go back to school. Some of them are evacuated right now,” he recalled. “So, I was really feeling like, those poor kids.”

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During the early weeks of school year, fire fighting teams were still using the high school as a form of base camp. Some of the images in the mural came directly from photos shot by fire emergency officials.

“I thought, 'I’ve got to do something meaningful.' If you don’t do something meaningful with high schoolers, and that’s relevant, you’re going to lose them,” said Chismar. “So we started the year with this.”

“We hope to get it installed permanently for the community,” he added.