Crane Art Project aims to spark curiosity, awareness in local students |

Crane Art Project aims to spark curiosity, awareness in local students

Local photographer Abby Jensen’s “Peek-a-boo,” taken in Hayden in 2018 and donated to local schools as part of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition’s Crane Art Project.
Abby Jensen/Courtesy photo

When Nancy Merrill was a child in suburban Chicago, the beauty of a painting of an English forest that hung in her elementary school lobby frequently stopped her in her tracks. She’d contemplate this landscape, so different from her own, until it was time to hustle back to class.

Decades later, Merrill is the president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, a 501(c)3 nonprofit whose mission is the conservation and protection of Rocky Mountain greater Sandhill cranes and their habitat through science and education. The coalition’s newest program is the Crane Art Project, in which the CCCC offered every school in the Yampa Valley a free, 20-by-30 inch framed photograph of Sandhill cranes for display.

“I really think (the painting) is part of what inspired me to become involved in conservation and eventually become a ‘craniac,’” Merrill said, noting the birds depicted in the painting. “I hope to repeat that for this generation, and that this crane art photograph will stimulate interest in and concern for Sandhill cranes and other wildlife of the Yampa Valley among students, parents and teachers.”

The photograph is titled “Peek-a-boo,” by local photographer, Pine Moon Fine Art Gallery artist and CCCC board member Abby Jensen, who grew up exploring Nebraska wetlands and wildlife. Jensen captured the image in September 2018, during the cranes’ staging season — when baby cranes, or colts, are just getting old and sturdy enough for their parents to grant them some independence and be a bit less territorial. Jensen started her day before sunrise to set up a blind in a Hayden wheat field, “which is always questionable,” Jensen said, “because sometimes it takes (the cranes) two or three days to get used to a blind.”

But on this particular morning, with fog hugging the landscape, the cranes were more curious than suspicious about the presence of the blind concealing Jensen and her camera. A trio of cranes — which can be as tall as five feet — danced together, and as soon as Jensen snapped their photo, she knew it was a winner. The birds’ golden eyes and wide wings cast movement across the image, and warm light illuminates the textures of soft feathers, bumpy bird flesh and sharp grasses.

“It’s just a miracle and wonderful photography work that Abby caught this pose,” Merrill said. Jensen agreed to let CCCC use the image for the Crane Art Project and for advertising purposes; the photo has also sold to individual buyers and can be found hanging in homes across the Yampa Valley.

Seven local schools accepted the CCCC’s photographs: Steamboat Montessori, Soroco High School, Strawberry Park Elementary, Yampa Valley High School, South Routt Elementary, Sandrock Elementary and Maybell Elementary.

During this year’s Greater Sandhill Crane Week, March 1-8, CCCC Program Director Erin Gelling delivered the photographs to each school, often to the principals. But at Strawberry Park, she had the opportunity to present the piece to a class of third graders.

“I showed them the picture and their mouths dropped,” Gelling said. “They all went, ‘Wooow!’ It was really special.”

Over the next several weeks, CCCC staff will again visit schools across the valley to present their 45-minute elementary school program to third-graders, providing information and context around the birds in these photographs. The program features discussions about cranes’ behavior, physiology, habitats and migration, brainstorming about how students can help protect cranes and their environments, and plenty of interactive bugling and dancing.

In addition to the Crane Art Project and crane education for third graders, CCCC runs programs for community groups, a live video feed of local cranes’ nests, the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, and a partnership to support farmers and ranchers in growing nutritious crops for cranes. The organization also hosts several contests, including a crane-sighting contest, a crane-themed coloring contest for kids, a brand-new poster design contest for middle-school students, and a creative arts scholarship for high school seniors.

The creative arts scholarship was recently awarded to high school seniors who, years before, were part of the first class of third graders to participate in the third-grade crane education program.

“(In the written arts contest,) several mentioned they first got interested in cranes during the third-grade program,” Merrill said. “We actually got to see the influence of the program.”

CCCC is also looking forward to seeing the influence of the prints of “Peek-a-boo” on schoolchildren in the future, as well.

“Hopefully, this project sparks curiosity and awareness, so that when they get to third grade, or to senior year, they’re more excited to learn about the cranes or participate in the scholarship program,” Gelling said. “Hopefully, kids realize that we have these incredible birds here and want to conserve them into the future.”

For the local schools that didn’t participate in the Crane Art Program this year, CCCC plans to repeat the offer next year for Greater Sandhill Crane Week 2021.

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