Helen M. Knight Elementary Art Coach Bruce Hucko works with HMK sixth-grader Abby Estenson, who was chosen as his “Junior Art Coach” because of her skill, demeanor and desire to learn. The Utah Art Education Association recently named Hucko as the 2015 Utah Elementary Educator of the Year. [Photo by Nathan Wynn / Moab Sun News]

Listen up, school officials: Lillian Scott needs longer classes. Not just any classes, mind you, but longer art classes.

The Helen M. Knight Elementary student’s demands to spend more time in school could be the ultimate tribute to HMK Art Coach Bruce Hucko, who was recently named the 2015 Utah Elementary Educator of the Year.

The Utah Art Education Association announced last month that it chose Hucko for the award based on his talent, passion and excellence in teaching, and for inspiring his students and colleagues.

When HMK Principal Taryn Kay first learned that Hucko’s peers around the state nominated him for the award, she was hardly surprised.

“To be honest, my reaction was, ‘of course,’ because he so deserves it,” Kay said. “I was very biased … I know there are some very talented art teachers in the state, but I can’t imagine that any of them could rival what we have going on here.”

As far as Kay knows, it’s unheard of for another school in Utah to turn its campus into a “living collection” of student artwork, which now includes more than 100 curated pieces that are on display throughout HMK’s hallways.

Hucko is a huge part of the reason why the school is so unique, she said.

As chair of the school’s arts committee, he organizes HMK’s annual Arts Extravaganza – a school-wide art walk that features students dressed up in artsy costumes, or as famous art world figures like Andy Warhol.

Throughout the year, Hucko is busy teaching students at all grade levels. He and his students have even turned an entire classroom into a camera obscura, and for one of their next projects, his sixth graders will learn how to make pinhole cameras.

He also works closely with other teachers to tie the visual arts into other curriculum, such as history, geology and language arts.

Right now, Hucko and the school’s fifth-grade classes are in the process of transforming an entire wing of HMK’s second floor into a 76 foot-long and 11-foot tall mural that depicts what the Boston area was like during the Founding Fathers’ time. The students are working on the project ahead of their upcoming field trip to Boston.

Needless to say, the walls look radically different than they did during the era of a former school administrator who wouldn’t allow anyone to touch the walls with so much as a single push pin – a change that Hucko mischievously brought about.

“Guess who was the first one to put one in?” he asked.

Under Hucko’s watch, art projects and lessons at HMK have extended far beyond the classroom.

To supplement third- and fourth-grade students’ geology lessons, he teamed up with the National Park Service and Friends of Arches and Canyonlands to offer “plein air” painting sessions at Canyonlands National Park and other nearby geological wonderlands.

Inside the city limits, Hucko has worked with numerous community groups and nonprofits on student-painted murals around town; he also partnered with Zax Restaurant to profile artwork from four HMK students every other month.

Former Zax employee Vanessa Scow said the paintings routinely caught the eye of visitors from all over the place during her time with the restaurant.

“When I was a manager at Zax, I would listen to people talk about how amazing these kids could draw or paint,” she said. “Of course, I would get to brag (about) what a wonderful art program we have in Moab … Teachers from all over the world would be amazed!”

Scow said that she herself didn’t think much of art until her daughters began to teach her about the things they learned in Hucko’s classes. Since then, however, she has become a convert, and she devotes considerable resources to their artistic endeavors.

“I have to buy paper at Sam’s Club by the case because of how much my daughters draw,” she said. “All because of their Art Coach.”

Over the years, Hucko’s experiences as an arts educator have benefited students not only in Moab, but from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Elko, Nevada, and beyond.

He began his career in the late 1970s as a co-founder of the Children’s Photographic Workshop, a group of Salt Lake City photographers that staged educational events at schools and community arts celebrations.

After a two-week stint as a resident artist at Montezuma Creek Elementary School in San Juan County, he joined the faculty there, building a strong visual arts program that earned a Rockefeller Brothers Fund award for Excellence in Arts Education. The organization also named Hucko as one of 30 leading arts educators in the country, and as a show of appreciation, David Rockefeller, Jr., dropped by in person to present the school with a check for $10,000.

From Montezuma Creek, Hucko made the move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where his eight years as an art teacher at Native American Pueblo schools led to the publication of a book, “Where There Is No Name for Art: the Art of Tewa Pueblo Children.” The book won the 1997 Carey McWilliams Award, and the nominating group called it the “best book on the U.S. experience of cultural diversity.”

Hucko returned to Moab in 1999, and he began to do freelance work as an arts educator and photographer.

Several years later, he helped create the Western Folklife Center’s summer photo and radio program for teens in Elko, and out of that experience, he started a similar radio program at Grand County High School.

While that program ultimately disappeared, other opportunities opened up when the Beverly Taylor Sorensen Arts Learning Program asked him to write a grant that would fund a full-time artist’s position at Red Rock Elementary.

Soon afterward, the program asked him if he’d like to work in that position. Hucko said he thought about it for a night before he accepted the offer, which came without any kind of job description.

“It’s a blank piece of paper,” he said. “You get to create the job – it’s a great gift.”

Two years later, Red Rock merged with HMK, and the program grew to include all grade levels. Today, every student in the school will walk through his classroom at some point, and Hucko said he views the Utah Art Education Association’s recognition as a reflection on the school as a whole.

“It’s not so much notoriety for myself, but for the nature of the work that we’re all trying to do,” he said. “And if I can brag about Moab kids a little bit, that doesn’t hurt.”

Hucko said he strives to give his students a background in the visual arts.

“We need to know how to read pictures, just like we need to know how to read books,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, he tries to teach students basic skills that they can apply to their studies in other areas.

“When they leave this room, they should own that knowledge so they can do it elsewhere, and in their own way,” he said.

When one student told Hucko that she wants to do what he’s doing when she grows up, Hucko made a point of holding her artwork up and telling her that she’s already achieved her goals.

“I told her, ‘You don’t have to wait until you’re an adult to be an artist, because you’re already doing it,’” he said.

For student Lillian Scott, the thought of going too long without art would leave her distracted, and her mind would veer away from her homework, she said in a letter in support of Hucko.

“Somehow, art is supposed to help you do math, so if I don’t do art a lot, I’ll probably struggle in math, too!” she said.

I know there are some very talented art teachers in the state, but I can’t imagine that any of them could rival what we have going on here.

HMK Art Coach named Utah Elementary Educator of the Year