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FARMINGTON – While he certainly encourages his students to be creative, Aztec High School art teacher Zack Pettijohn also prides himself on running an orderly classroom — that is, until spring rolls around each year and his students begin working on their projects for the annual “Recycled Art Show” at the Feat of Clay gallery.

“It’s a little bit wild in our class for a couple of week,” Pettijohn said last week as his students completed their entries for the show, which requires artists to employ a minimum of 70 percent recycled materials in their work. “And I think they enjoy that.”

Normally, Pettijohn said, his students are all working on a project of the same type. But when it comes to recycled art, they’re free to let their imagination go — within reason, of course.

“I give the rules to the kids ... and we talk a little bit about making something not just crazy, but something somebody would like to have in their home," he said. "So it needs to be something they could possibly sell.”

That isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky notion, Pettijohn said. Each year, a couple of his students manage to sell a piece in the show, and that’s tremendously exciting for them, he said.

Some of the projects his students have completed this year include a lamp made out of art books with a shade comprised of silver soda can pop tops and a takeoff on Russian Fabergé eggs made from real chicken eggs.

“It’s fun for them to work on what would be junk or trash and turn it into something neat,” Pettijohn said, explaining that one student might be painting designs on a repurposed flower pot alongside a student who is hammering bottlecaps flat to decorate another piece.

The veteran teacher doesn’t just encourage his students to take part in the annual show. He leads by example, producing his own piece for the show each year.

This year, he said, he used materials gathered from his childhood home in the Ozarks outside of Springfield, Mo.

“It’s a piece made out of black walnut hulls I picked up in my parents’ yard,” he said.

Pettijohn said he gathered approximately 100 hulls that had been chewed out by squirrels during a recent visit. Struck by their texture, he began considering ways he could use them in a piece of art and arrived at the idea of mounting them on a board against bright pastel colors.

“It’s quite a bit of contrast,” he said, explaining there is no real meaning to the piece, aside from its aesthetic value.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Pettijohn said the piece is a strong reminder of the house he grew up in, with those walnuts holding particularly strong symbolism for him.

“They were the bane of my existence,” he said, sighing and explaining that the yard had two trees that filled it with thousands of walnuts that he was charged with picking up. “We had so many, we’d fill up the back of my dad’s Chevrolet pickup six times.”

At one point, Pettijohn’s father concocted a Tom Sawyer-like scheme to enlist the harvesting help of all of his son’s friends in the neighborhood.

“Dad threw a party where he cooked hot dogs for all my friends, and all they had to do was pick up walnuts,” Pettijohn said, laughing. “At the time, I thought that was really nice of him, but later, when I realized what he was doing, I thought, ‘What a dirty rat.’”

Pettijohn said the task of collecting all those walnuts hasn’t fallen to him in 20 years, but he’s glad he finally found some other use for them. He even has a plan for his recycled piece if no one buys it during the show.

“I can always give it to my mom,” he said.

The show, which remains on display through May 20, also features water bottle art by Karrie Smith, jewelry from recycled vintage components by Terry Munter and furniture by Steve Barr.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Opening reception for “The Recycled Art Show”

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, April 22

Where: The Feat of Clay gallery, 107 S. Main Ave. in Aztec

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