Some people would call Aztec, NM the middle of nowhere. It's three and a half hours northwest of Albuquerque, and you'll cross the Continental Divide on the way. Centered a few miles south of the Colorado border, at the foot of the San Juan mountains, Aztec's population of less than 6,000 is bracketed by Indian reservations. Oil wells and cattle ranches fuel the local economy. The police blotter is peppered with DWI's and drug offenses.
At the same time, art programs at Aztec High School are flourishing, driven by the creativity and commitment of Drury alumnus Zack Pettijohn '95. "I try to teach my students about creative thinking and critical development," he says, echoing concepts central to the Drury experience. His students (30 percent Navaho, 20 percent Hispanic, 50 percent Anglo and a few Apache, Ute and Zuni Indians) are new to art; most "have never given it one iota of thought," says Pettijohn, "but they absolutely love it" when they get a taste.
The enthusiasm spills over into the community projects Pettijohn has led since he arrived. Students have painted trash cans on the city's streets, transforming them into ears of corn and the like. This year, students have designed and painted a 50-foot-long mural on a downtown wall. The mural, depicting an early 20th-century Aztec street scape, was divided by a grid. Each student was able to paint a part of the scene in his or her individual style. "The whole community service thing was rooted in me at Drury," Zack remembers. Pointing to Drury's new core curriculum in particular, he says, "Global Perspectives was an undertone in every teacher, every subject at Drury - to think globally. It has affected me a lot, and now I try to take art and relate it to a student's life."
Downtown Aztec, 1910
Pettijohn, like many college students, took a while to realize his calling. He didn't declare his art and education double major until required to. And he admits some education professors may not have liked him very much. "I was cantankerous," he says, also quick to mention his lasting friendship with Dr. Dan Beach, the director of the School of Education and Child Development. In the art department, with professors like Tom Parker and Tom Russo, Pettijohn found himself more comfortable, and equally challenged. "What I enjoyed most was the freedom to create something new, the freedom to take a problem and creatively solve it however I wanted."
His gusto for new challenges helped propel him to Aztec, a sharp change of culture for an Ozarker. He knew a little about the city from a Drury friend who lived there, but still needed to make a swift adjustment. "The art is much different here and I've learned a lot about that," he notes. "The Native Americans I've met are very, very artistic - not on purpose, but their culture is based on right-brain thought," a more creative mode compared with the logical "left-brain" thinking imported from the Old World. Pettijohn also works to conquer perhaps the biggest challenge, bringing a love of art to his students by helping them realize how art is relevant outside the classroom. At least Zack knows some of the answers, thanks to his own Drury experience.