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Art, Questions, and the Five Senses

Normally, when we think about appreciating art, we think of using our eyes. Questions such as, “What do You see?” or “What might the artist be portraying?” come to mind. But, there are other ways to perceive art —ways that involve other senses and other questions.

Recently, an exhibit at the Palo Alto Art Center included works by two artists chosen to participate in the annual juried exhibition called “Radius.” One of the chosen artists produced works that were computer-generated, or produced by conventional means and then scanned into the computer. His process involved crumpling and folding the first printed versions before scanning them into the computer a second time, creating a crackled background effect. They were then printed on large sheets of tissue paper with additional photographic elements or painting or drawing effects added for a rich textural surface. Because of this artist’s emphasis on texture, the idea of touch became very important to teaching about this art.

Docents prepared tours focused on the idea of texture and touch, talking about how artists produce textures and what effect textures have on those who look at the work. They found specific objects in the exhibit with different textures and discussed how the artists produced the textured effects and what responses these effects elicited.

Among the questions docents posed were:

  • If you were the artist, would you have used this textured effect?
  • If you could touch it, what word would you use to describe the texture?
  • Why do you think the artist added the texture?

Soon, more creative and expansive questions emerged from these fairly conventional ones. Choosing a specific textured area, we began asking such questions as:

  • What sort of noise might you hear if you could rub the surface?
  • Would the noise be different if you rubbed from right to left? From left to right? From top to bottom? Or, from bottom to top?
  • If you chose a type of music to describe this area, what music would you select? Jazz, rap, bebop, rock, etc.

When asking such expansive questions it is important to share and validate the responses you receive. They will reflect individual differences in perception and point-of-view. For example, I led a group of children to a ceramic sculpture with bushy, spiky “hair.” I asked the children what it might feel like if we could touch it (and reiterated that this must be an imaginary touch). Answers ranged from “rough, pointy, and jagged” to “oily, like horse-hair, and slimy.”

Sometimes, however, questioning receives a unanimous response. When this same group of students looked at a larger ceramic sculpture with long flat ribbon shapes, the group looked at it for only a short while and then agreed that the artist had used a pasta/noodle machine to make the clay pieces. We had a small piece of the ribbon for the children to touch, and they again were unanimous in deciding that the strips had been put on the sculpture before the piece was fired and that the color was added as a last step in finishing the work.

It is not uncommon to receive some surprising and clever comments to open-ended questions. In a recent show of work by three women artists, one artist used sheets of mulberry paper, pierced and covered with melted beeswax. The first question from the group was, “How does she make the holes?” I distributed samples of the paper and asked them if they could figure out what she had done. The children agreed that she had poked something though the paper, because there was a ridge around the small hole on one side of the paper.

One child commented, “It’s like for a blind person.” They also noticed that there were variations of color over the large surface of the sheets, and the group consensus was that she had painted the surface with hot wax and as it cooled, the thickness varied and made for changes in color. The group decided that the wax was applied first and then the holes were made, since painting on the wax did not flatten the one-sided ridges. Then one boy sniffed his sample and remarked that it smelled sweet; a girl tried a sniff and said it was like flowers, and a third boy corrected her statement by summing up, “It smells like really good candles.”

The students all could think of places where you could get dirt to mix with melted wax to get different colors, as the artist had done. They decided that one of the best places to go would be the Grand Canyon, since the canyon walls contained so many colors. But, they said, this artist didn’t go there; she used ordinary kinds of dirt. I’ve enjoyed having a chance to talk about the “sounds” evoked by art works. I remember one exhibit where there were two charcoal drawings of sea stacks. We looked at them and talked about what a sea stack was and where you could go to see them. Then, I told the students to close their eyes and imagine standing on the beach looking at the stack. I asked them to tell me what sounds they heard.

At first, all they could imagine was the sound of the sea. But, gradually, by asking a few additional questions, more complex answers emerged. “What kind of weather is it?” They responded, “Oh, there’s a wind, you can hear the wind in the trees, maybe the wind will break off a branch and you could hear it fall.” I asked, “What animals might you hear?” and they heard shorebirds, seagulls, and imagined a growling animal in a nearby forest. Then, they added a boat behind the sea stack, hearing the sails flap and the boat’s bell. They heard the sound of pebbles dragging back and forth with the movement of the waves on shore, the sound of bubbles breaking on the sand, and of a fish jumping close to the beach.

At the conclusion of our tour, I asked the children if there were art works they would remember after they left our facility. A number of them chose the sea stacks and said that they would remember all they had imagined, unseen, by thinking about the sounds.

A similarly positive response occurred when our institution exhibited some large jar sculptures within which were hidden trays supporting blocks of ice. We asked the students to sit quietly and tell us what they heard. At first, no one really heard anything, so we listened to ourselves breathe. Then, suddenly, one child said quietly, “I hear dripping.” We listened carefully until everyone could hear the dripping. Then, I asked, “which jar is the dripping sound coming from?” This required extra listening before they informed me, triumphantly, “They’re all dripping and some drip faster than others!”

Asking questions about art works that engage the imagination and senses is easy and it slows visitors down, makes them look, and takes them past such thoughts as “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” Questions that elicit careful consideration and involve the use of our five senses can result in a tour where people really look at, and think about, the works.

V. Gwen Weisner became a docent at the Palo Alto Art Center, in Palo Alto, CA, in 1989, when she retired from the Palo Alto Unified School District. Today she continues to provide tours for both children and adults, and to learn about art. In addition to serving as a docent, Ms. Weisner is a gallery attendant, welcoming visitors to the exhibits and offering to answer their questions, and is a member of the Palo Alto Center Foundation.

Weisner, V Gwen. ” Art , Questions, and the Five Senses,” The Docent Educator 11.2 (Winter 2001-02): 14-15.

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