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Tuesday Close-Up: With tandem bike art display, advocates hope to curb drinking among LGBTQ youth

A handful of Utah County partners have teamed up on an art display at the Provo Towne Centre aimed at raising awareness about the risks drugs and alcohol pose to LBGTQ+ youth.

The art display — a partnership between the Utah Valley Drug Prevention Coalition, Encircle and the Parents Empowered campaign — includes an 8x12 mural, which is pink on the edges but gradually fades into orange, purple and blue hues.

“Whatever your child’s journey,” the mural reads, “Go Together.”

Also included in the art display, and in line with the message on the mural, is a banana-yellow tandem bicycle bolted to the mall floor, representing the invaluable role parents play in helping their kids on their journey.

“The research has shown that parents are the number one reason why kids don’t drink alcohol,” Heather Lewis, substance use disorder prevention coordinator for the Utah County Health Department, said during an unveiling of the art installation on June 22. “They, the parents, have that influence. Parents are the most important protective factor in our kids’ lives.”

Every year, health officials get data from Utah school districts about “what’s happening in our schools” through the Student Health and Risk Prevention Survey. For the first time, the latest survey included questions addressed specifically to LGBTQ+ youth about the struggles they may be facing, according to Lewis.

“And we found that the use rates for alcohol (for LGBTQ+ youth) were double that of the straight peers. And so that was concerning to me,” Lewis said.

It’s concerning, she said, because “when we have underaged drinking, we are, our kids are literally putting their brains at risk. And the whole point of this partnership is to be able to encourage our kids to have bright, healthy futures.”

Lewis referenced the “pillars” of the Parents Empowered campaign, which are: bonding, boundaries and monitoring.

Bonding can be as simple as spending 15 minutes a day with your child and “doing something fun that they enjoy,” while boundaries can mean setting “very clear rules” about underaged drinking.

Monitoring consists of asking your child the four W’s: Where are you going? Who are you going with? What time will you be home? Will there be alcohol?

“We need to ask these questions,” Lewis said. “We need to be talking to our kids. We need to know where they’re going, when they’re getting home, making sure that they’re feeling safe.”

Stephenie Larsen, founder of Encircle, a Provo-based nonprofit that provides resources to gay, queer and trans youth, spoke about meeting a gay-35 year-old man at a drug rehab clinic who told her he turned to drugs and alcohol as a teen because he felt ashamed of who he was, and because he didn’t feel supported by his friends and family.

“I think that the message here of families staying together and supporting their children no matter who they are is so important and meaningful,” said Larsen. “We don’t want kids to turn to drugs and alcohol because they feel isolation, they feel loneliness, they feel depression. We want to make sure that in our communities in Utah, they feel loved and supported, no matter who they are. And that they’ve got a parent on the bicycle with them, no matter where their journey goes.”

Larsen continued, “Sometimes we have to change our vision of what we wanted our kids to be, or who we thought they would be. And sometimes that journey on that bike is a lot more beautiful (and) a lot more scenic. And a lot more growth happens when we love and accept our children just for who they are.”

“I hope to see a lot of families jumping on this bike together,” she said.

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'Stadium of Fire' returns for 2021 with fireworks, flying motorcycles

Flags, fireworks and country music. After a year off, the Stadium of Fire is back for 2021.

The Stadium of Fire, part of the annual America’s Freedom Festival, kicked off at 8 p.m. Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, where approximately 30,000 attendees packed in, eager to celebrate ahead of the 4th of July holiday.

Freedom Festival Executive Director Jim Evans welcomed the crowd of 30,000 back after last year’s Stadium of Fire was canceled for the first time in its 40-year history due to COVID-19 restrictions.

A half-dozen skydivers dropped from the sky and circled around the stadium as American flags attached them flapped in the wind. After a few minutes of circling the field, they dropped down and came to a running or tumbling halt near the 20-yard line.

Next, the Stadium of Fire Dancers lined up across the field in ruby leotards and performed a routine utilizing red exercise balls.

After that came the arrival of the colors and introduction of first responders John Oseguera, Mindy Nelsen, Jill Holker and Jake Dennison, followed by the national anthem performed by the Utah National Guard’s 23rd Army band.

The night took a soft turn as the Millennial Choir performed “Amazing Grace” — that is until the performance picked up and reached a crescendo, turning into an overpowering roar.

The performance picked up even more when David Archuleta made a guest appearance and sang “Old Church Choir” with the rest of the choir.

The night’s music was just beginning and, soon after, Collin Raye appeared on the main stage and performed songs like “Rock N’ Roll Bone,” “Little Red Rodeo” and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” as families clapped and couples swing-danced.

The swing dances turned to slow dances as Raye played “Little Rock” while thousands of flickering phones lit up the BYU stadium like fireflies.

The most exciting part of the night came when six Nitro Circus riders performed backflips, whips, heel-clickers, seat grabs and other freestyle motocross tricks through the air of the football stadium.

For the final trick, the six FMX riders soared off the launch pad one-by-one as “Gold on the Ceiling” by The Black Keys played in the background.

County star Lee Greenwood then took over the show and broke into “Before I’m Ever Over You,” followed by “Between a Rock and a Heartache” and “Ain’t No Trick (It Takes Magic).”

“It’s so great to be here in front of a live audience,” Greenwood told the crowd in between songs. “And I can see all of your faces. No masks, thank you.”

Greenwood saved his most coveted track, the classic “God Bless the U.S.A.,” for the show’s finale, during which the audience sang along. “‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land; God bless the U.S.A.”

The sky filled with flames and fireworks as the 2021 Stadium of Fire wrapped up with a “pyro finale,” honoring 40 years of the annual summer celebration.

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Brick by brick, American Fork duo advancing on Fox show 'LEGO Masters'

Art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” a pretty lofty summation for such a small, three-letter word. And it gets even more complex when you take note of just how many ways art can be expressed.

For example, some might show inspiration through dance and movement; for others, with music. More still bring beauty with paint on canvas or written and spoken words.

And then there are the masters that somehow bring visions to life with hundreds of thousands of tiny, multi-colored bricks. That’s right, masters. Lego Masters.

Acclaimed artist Edgar Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see,” and there’s been more than plenty to view on this season of FOX’s “LEGO Masters.” Season 2 began airing June 1, and since then, a dozen pairs of creatives have dug into 5 million bricks, bringing to life miniature moving, interactive Lego floats, epic brick explosions, beautiful block buildings that can withstand even the harshest of quakes and wearable Lego fashion in the form of intricately designed hats.

Three eliminations down, and Jen Smart and Susan Earls, an all-star Lego-creating team from American Fork, are still representing Utah County well in the brick-tastic competition, with the next episode set to air at 7 p.m. Tuesday on FOX.

“Arriving there was surreal,” Earls said of when she and Smart first stepped onto set in Atlanta, Georgia. “It was hard to believe we were actually there when we got there. … It was amazing, and I was in awe of the privilege of being there.”

“There were a couple moments where I said, ‘Susan, we’re here! Look at that brick pit with 5 million bricks!’” Smart added. “I was definitely a little bit nervous wondering, ‘Am I out of my league here?’ Fangirling over all the other teams that are here, and also knowing this is such a unique art form, Lego, and we all have different skill sets.

“I knew I was bringing something unique that no one else had,” Smart continued. “Susan had something no one else had.”

That unique ability and a love for Legos is actually what brought Smart and Earls together. Both members of the Utah LEGO Users Group, an official Lego club, the duo were showing their art at the same show at the Utah County Fair.

Later, when word spread that the first season of “LEGO Masters” was casting, Jen spoke with the casting team and began the search for a teammate.

“She contacted me,” Earls said. “Obviously, who wouldn’t want to participate in something like this? Of course I said yes, and we went through basically the entire casting process for Season 1.”

According to Smart, after working through the casting challenges in Los Angeles, the pair actually did make it on to Season 1 of the show, but the timing wasn’t right.

“The day they called to tell us we got the part, my husband and I were driving home from Primary Children’s after getting a cancer diagnosis with our 10-year-old son,” Smart said.

The news was devastating for Smart’s family, and obviously put a hold on all other plans.

“They sent him a gift basket and kept in touch throughout chemo treatments,” Smart said. As he improved and finished chemo, the opportunity to take on Season 2 of the competition was offered, and Smart and Earls took on the challenge, with ready support from their families.

“It was really fun to see everyone’s not only collaborative efforts, but individual efforts,” Smart said of filming. “It’s an amazing art form.”

More than that, there was a great sense of community between the contestants.

“If they showed the whole cast cheering for everyone, that’s exactly how it was,” Smart said. “We loved the other teams. Everyone there was so phenomenal.”

Talent was a requisite, though, with the variety of tasks each team had to take on.

“The challenges put us outside our comfort zones,” Earls said.

“They were things we’d never do,” Smart noted. “We’d never blow up our own Legos. That’s something we’d never do, and something we’d never practice.”

The unique nature of the tasks definitely kept them on their toes and stretched their abilities in new ways.

“It’s not something I thought I ever would have done two years ago,” Earls said of competing on national television. “It’s all been so amazing, just the experience of getting to do the filming, do the challenges, and now we’re getting to talk to the public and let people see what we can do. It’s just an amazing experience.”

“This whole experience has just been a fun wild ride,” Smart said. “I never thought five years ago, six years ago when I started doing Lego art that it would amount to anything. I was doing it to occupy my brain, to see if I could. For curiosity, not to show it off to everybody. … Then FOX contacts us to see if we want to do this show. It’s such a unique experience, so much fun, and we all get to share and geek out over something we all love: this toy, this brick, these Lego sets.”

From incredible cityscapes to a life-sized Wonder Woman, Earls and Smart were challenging themselves long before “LEGO Masters,” and will continue doing so after. Both will be in attendance at Brick Slopes, a Lego fan event and convention set for Aug. 27-28 at the Sandy Expo Center, and both can be seen at the “LEGO Masters” watch parties set to be held at the SCERA Center for the Arts. The next events are set for July 6 and 20 at 7 p.m. and are free to the public, featuring a contestant meet and greet, photo ops, autographs, a Q&A, on-site Lego builds and Smart’s life-sized Lego Wonder Woman on display.

Locals also can get in on the Lego action as Smart tackles a Lego-size take on the SCERA Shell, with the entire audience in to-scale mini-fig size. For a $10 contribution, the community can take part and have their own mini-fig placed in the design, with money going to support the project and also the SCERA.

“The SCERA has been so supportive to us, this is a memento and thank you from all of us in the community,” Smart said.

When it comes to Legos, according to Smart, the benefits range from a creative and artistic outlet to a unifying factor.

“I love that this playful toy connects so many of us,” she said. “Whether you play with it or use it as an art medium, it’s the perfect representation of the human experience.”

To see more of Smart’s work, find her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at http://jenrainesmart, or view her art gallery online at http://jenrainesmart.com.