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Children painted Arizona flora and fauna on the Christmas ornaments. (Photo: Release the Fear)
Children painted Arizona flora and fauna on the Christmas ornaments. (Photo: Release the Fear)

How boy born in Mexico helped a red bird from Arizona find its way to the White House for Christmas

Posted On: 2015-12-24 09:43 PM
From Arizona Republic / AZCentral.com...


Dianna M. Náñez, The Republic | azcentral.com 9:43 p.m. MST December 24, 2015

Naykor Gutierrez thought about the Christmas ornaments taking flight and traveling to places he has imagined, places he's drawn in pictures, but has never seen with his own eyes.

Naykor knows about traveling to far-away places.

At 13, he moved from Mexico to Arizona with his parents. When he recalls how life changed in America, Naykor thinks about differences in language and making new friends. In Arizona, he learned American Sign Language to communicate with friends who are also deaf or hard of hearing.

In his new home state, Naykor would watch the trees fill with breeds of birds he had never seen before. He remembers the birds taking flight. He'd dream about the places they would see on their travels.

Naykor is 16 now. In October, he was asked to take part in a special assignment at school. An Arizona artist wanted a group of children at Sequoia School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Mesa, where Naykor goes to school, to help design and decorate a Christmas tree ornament.

The artist would pick a couple of Sequoia students' ornament designs to be hand-painted onto a holiday globe that would travel from Arizona to the nation's capital. There, in President's Park at the White House, the ornament from Arizona would hang in the "America Celebrates" holiday display surrounding the National Christmas Tree.

Naykor thought about what he'd draw for his design. He thought back to his first camping trip in the forests north of Phoenix. Standing among piñon pine and juniper trees, Naykor said, he saw a red bird with flecks of gold in its wings.

"This bird, it makes you think of America," he said, speaking through a sign-language interpreter.

Naykor wasn't sure what kind of bird it was. But he knew how he wanted to decorate the Arizona ornament. He took out a piece of paper and began drawing a red bird with gilded wings spread in flight.

Christmas ornaments from Arizona travel to the White House

This year, 56 artists helped decorate the Christmas ornaments representing every U.S. state, territory and the District of Columbia.

In Arizona, on a warm September day, the Governor's Office made a call to Phoenix artist Robert Miley. They asked if Robert would volunteer to create the ornaments representing Arizona at the White House.

Robert agreed to the work - but only if the children he teaches at schools across the Phoenix area could help, too. The Governor's Office agreed, and Robert told the kids in elementary school and high school their artwork would be on display in the nation's capital.

"One kid said, 'You mean what we're going to do on these ornaments, it's actually going to the White House and the president and all these other people are going to see it?' " Robert said.

Yes, he told the little boy. Your work will go all the way to the White House and even the president will see it, he said.

In early December, thousands of people attended the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, an American tradition dating back to 1923. Tens of thousands more from around the world visit the White House display of lights and ornaments during the holiday season.

Robert works with children through Release the Fear, a non-profit that uses art, music and communication to help disadvantaged or at-risk children. Robert thought Arizona's ornaments would mean more coming from children in his Southwest state than they could ever mean coming from just one artist.

"I could have done it myself a lot faster, but it wouldn't have the same energy involving these kids - these incredible spirits," he said.

Robert said the theme for each ornament centered on the flora and fauna of U.S. National Parks. He was tasked with sending 12 ornaments to the White House.

The children's designs would be selected and painted onto each ornament. Robert would add finishing touches to some. To get more children involved, Robert set up his ornament-decorating plan so that a group of children from one school would pitch in to paint half an ornament and another group would paint the other half.

The student artists were from schools across Phoenix. Some were from Hamilton Elementary, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections Adobe Mountain and Florence Crittenton. Others were from Genesis City Academy, Excelencia School, Kenilworth Elementary and Children's First Academy. And there was Sequoia School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing - Naykor's school.

As Naykor sat drawing, he didn't think about whether his design would be the one picked for Sequoia children to paint or whether it would be the one to go all the way to the White House where even the president would see it.

Naykor looked at the holiday ornament and remembered what he saw in Arizona when he first came from Mexico. He thought about the red bird flying in the Arizona forest.

"I think of America and these free birds, and I thought it would match perfectly for Christmas at the White House," he said.

When all the children were done painting their ornaments, Robert sat and looked at each one. There were more than a dozen ornaments. All the ornaments were beautiful in their own way.

He loved the abstract curves, desert shades and the delicate brush strokes from a child's hand. There was one with an amethyst-purple cactus bloom, one with a pair of gray owls perched on a knobby branch and one with a slithering, desert-beige rattlesnake.

Robert hated picking one child's ornament over another's. So he made a phone call to the nation's capital.

"We said we can't make a decision," Robert said.

Robert said he spoke with a National Parks official who works with the White House ornaments display. He told the worker about the Phoenix children who painted Arizona's collection of Christmas globes.

Could Arizona please send more, he asked?

"There's really a cross-cultural message that people need to know about who and what we are in Arizona," Robert said of why he hoped each ornament would make it to Washington, D.C., for Christmas.

Robert was given the OK to send 17 ornaments.

In November, he helped wrap the ornaments in sturdy boxes with extra packaging to keep them safe on the trip to Washington, D.C. Robert likes to think about people seeing Arizona's holiday spirit as they walk through President's Park and past the Christmas trees donned with ornaments and twinkling lights.

Naykor thinks about the ornaments, too. He remembers the day he came home and told his parents his design was picked to be painted on one Christmas ornament from Arizona. He told his mom and his dad that President Barack Obama would see the ornament he designed.

"My mom was very happy and said, 'I can't believe it's going to be in the White House,' " he said. "And my dad was really proud of me and thought I had done a good job."

Naykor knows he won't make it to Washington, D.C., to see the ornaments hanging on the National Christmas Tree. He won't see his design on the Arizona ornament in the America Celebrates holiday display.

"I don't know if anyone will send us a picture," he said in November. But he would still dream about the red bird spreading its wings and flying from Arizona to a Christmas tree at the White House.

Epilogue

In December, Robert and his sister made a special trip to the White House to see the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. Afterward, as people were being ushered out, they stopped a park ranger.

Please, they asked, we've come all the way from Arizona - could we see the children's ornaments?

The ranger thought about it for a moment. Then, he agreed, and let them in. Robert snapped a picture for his students back home.



Photos: Children painted Arizona flora and fauna on the Christmas ornaments. (Photo: Release the Fear)