Arizona Artist Illuminates Vision for Art Education

    Sit down to talk with Cheryl Thomas about her passion for art and education in all of their aspects, and she will tell you outright that art is possibly the last area of education in which problem-solving has not been eliminated from the learning process.

    Creative problem solving is what education is all about, Thomas says, and art projects– including language arts, performing and fine arts —  demand ongoing evaluation and unique, multi-layered approaches precisely because they are so uniquely personal. “One thing I teach my students is that there is no product that has not been touched by art.”

Cheryl Thomas, art teacher at Peach Springs Elementary in Arizona.  Photo by M.V. McNamara

Cheryl Thomas, art teacher at Peach Springs Elementary in Arizona.
Photo by M.V. McNamara

    A native of Winslow, Thomas grew up watching her family run the famous La Posada hotel in juxtaposition to the Navajo and Hopi communities of the American Southwest. With a two-plus-page resume packed with artistic accomplishments and accolades in various media, Thomas is an artist at heart who chose to devote her working career to serving non-mainstream, and in some cases, underfunded, educational groups, from the deep south — inner city Savannah — to the western desert. She is currently an art teacher at Peach Springs Elementary School in Peach Springs Arizona, located in the heart of the Hualapai Nation near the Grand Canyon.

    Thomas, the artist, and Thomas, the educator says the same challenges apply to art education — easily extrapolated to all of education — in Peach Springs, Arizona as to any exclusive private school or major metropolitan school district. “We have removed the struggle from educating and raising our kids.”

    And ubiquitous standardized testing only provides only a flat, dead-end problem-solving paradigm, versus art across the curriculum, she adds, referring to the writings of British educational philosopher Ken Robinson.

    Thomas, who recently represented Peach Springs schools at the National Institute for School Leadership in Washington D.C., says educators are at least discussing these issues, although it may years before changes trickle down to the classroom. She also admits that the “lack of growth,” and possibly a brain drain scenario, may prevent some Native American communities from benefitting immediately from educational resources and technologies. However the uniqueness — and in some cases, remoteness — of these communities within our American culture may be reason enough to provide them with more of these cutting-edge resources.  

    In the meantime, Thomas is in a unique position to enact her educational vision on a daily basis. She continues to teach hands-on art concepts to Hualapai children in Peach Springs — concepts that respect traditional Hualapai ideas of spirtuality and sustainability. “Everything we know about history and culture is through art,” Thomas says.

Sustainability, a Never-lost Lesson Among the Hualapai

    The idea of sustainability is very chic right now. Obviously not a new idea, one could easily argue that civilization would never have made is this far without sustainability traditions that pervade every culture. But right now — perhaps as a sign of a maturing culture — big business and other entities, are beginning to take up the mantle of “Local, Natural, Sustainable.”

    An over-reaching idea in the Hualapai community — and in many Native American communties — is sustainability at all levels, says Loretta Jackson-Kelly, director of the Hualapai Cultural Center in Peach Springs, Arizona.

Gorgeous moon over Havasupai. Photo by Jennifer Boley

Gorgeous moon over Havasupai.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

    Involving everyone, from elders to children, the cultural center’s original sustainability curriculum carries the message home, from making use of local fruits, vegetables and game, to preserving an entire culture.


      Marcie Craynon, Carrie Calisay Cannon and Bennett Jackson of the Hualapai Cultural center are helping to keep those memories and traditions alive through incentivized, integrated weekly programs teaching language, ethnobotony, and hunting techniques tied to ancient Hualapai spiritual values.

          “We teach that there is a means of survival for all things,” Bennett Jackson says. “We engrain in them that we are not the only entity (in nature) — there are other living things in existence. We offer gratitude through prayers and offerings (before the hunt). There is a means of survival for all things.”