It's not a typical scene at a contemporary art museum.

A group of fifth-graders gathered around a large drawing hanging on the wall at the Missoula Art Museum.

Chris Merriam, a guide for the MAM's Fifth-Grade Art Experience, rubbed her hands together and encouraged the kids to do the same. Then they all pressed their hands against the black portions of the picture. A line of boys planted their legs and pressed with both hands as though they were trying to prevent the wall itself from crashing down.

The artist, who stylizes her name as RYAN! Feddersen, used acrylic and thermochromic ink for the drawing, titled "Unveiling the Romantic West." She based the series on Edgar Paxson's murals of historical scenes depicting the Western white man's narrative at the Missoula County Courthouse.

As the kids kept pressing on the black ink, they revealed a hidden drawing with references to the indigenous cultures displaced by the white Westward expansion.

Why would she make art that she wants you to touch? Merriam asked them earlier.

"Cause she wants you to see what it is now and what happened before that?" one girl replied.

Why would she hide it, though? Merriam asked.

"Maybe there's more to the story," one boy said.

***

The MAM is marking the 30th year of the Fifth-Grade Art Experience. Each year, it invites more than 1,000 fifth-graders from Missoula and the surrounding area for tours with trained art guides.

On Thursday, teacher Kelli Hollingsworth's 23 fifth-graders from Daly Elementary in Hamilton made the road trip for the day.

Hollingsworth has been bringing her kids to see contemporary art here for years.

"They love it," she said. When they get back to school, they're ready to try their hands at it, she added.

Feddersen's exhibition, "Resistance," was just one showing of challenging contemporary art they saw. Merriam guided them through some of the themes of race and gentrification in the work by Feddersen, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

They also got to play with the kinetic wooden sculptures in Stephen Glueckert's "All Mixed Up" and learn about the underlying social messages. They toured the Benefit Art Auction exhibition, which fills two galleries on the top floor. After Merriam discussed some of the works, they fanned out on their own, flitting from piece to piece and occasionally stopping to talk among themselves.

Then Merriam asked the students to stand next to their favorite piece. If the auction was held right then and there, Dudley Dana's digital print, "Alluring Simplicity," would be the subject of a bidding war. Merriam asked what they liked about his picture, in which he photographed a beach scene and blurred and altered the image like a painting.

"Cause it looks like TV," one kid replied. "It's so cool."

Four kids clustered around a brightly rendered landscape painting by Dennis Sloan, "Megan's World." The horizontal frame is sliced into three triangular frames that the kids analyzed together.

***

After the exhibition tours, the kids headed downstairs to the MAM's basement-level classroom to make their own works. Their teacher on this day was Glueckert, the former MAM curator whose work they'd learned about earlier.

Glueckert, a gregarious presence with a background in art education, wrote the word "dog" on a piece of paper and showed it to the class.

"This is kind of silly," he said, "But what is this?"

"Dog," they all replied. "Yeah, but what is it?" he asked. "Letters," they replied.

"What language is it?"

"English."

"It's a language, right?"

Then he drew a coil of scribbled lines underneath.

"What is that?"

"Scribbles."

"OK, now what language is it?"

"Art language," one kid replied.

Every culture recognizes what a scribble is, he said. More than those who understand English.

"Your scribble and my scribble are different," he said. "They're like fingerprints."

No matter what mark you make, he told them, it's yours.

Then he showed them how to make an accordion-folk paper book and put out markers, colored pencils, stencils, stamps and some homemade drawing gadgets and set them about making their own marks. 

Afterward, he reminded them that art is all around us – whether upstairs in a frame on the wall, or on paper in front of them, the moment they feel like creating it.

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