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Get Into Your Work!: A Process-Oriented Approach to Engaging the Senses

At the Dallas Museum of Art, education staff and docents often work collaboratively to develop and refine a variety of strategies for teaching in the galleries. Many of the DMAs 140 actively touring docents are practicing artists who bring their own perspectives to teaching about art in the collections. The following are examples of the object-based experiences developed through this collaboration.

DMA docent Emily Parham developed a plan to lead a session on ceramics with first year touring docents Sarah Nabors and Jo Ann Reno. The three women, who share a common interest in making ceramics, each selected works in the permanent collections that they planned on presenting, including the DMAs prized three-glaze Chinese guardian figures, ancient Chinese ceramics, and Japanese Jomon pot.

Before spending time in the galleries, Emily, Sarah, and Jo Ann chose to lead a session in the art studios that allowed docents to experience handling clay. Docents attending the afternoon training were each provided a workstation and distributed a large slab of clay that they were told to mold or reshape in some way. Emily brought a variety of simple implements and objects including toothpicks, buttons, rolling pins, and textured surfaces like a hazelnut, used for sculpting, shaping, and re-texturing the clay. After the studio exercise, docents adjourned to the galleries where Emily, Sarah, and Jo Ann gave presentations on the art objects, connecting how they were made to the previous activity in the studios.

While explaining the patterns that were pressed on to the Jomon pot using a coiled rope, Emily made comparison and reference to the various found objects and tools the docents worked with in the studios. A technical explanation of firing and glazing techniques also took place. This allowed the conversation to delve more deeply into an understanding of the technical skills required to finely craft and execute the pieces in the DMAs collections. The session was well-received by the docents in attendance, who were excited to hear their peers and to gather information specific to objects that they could incorporate into their tours.

This past May, the DMA opened the exhibition Wolfgang Laib: A Retrospective. The show provides a distinctive challenge to docents as Laib’s work is intended to be experienced in a solitary fashion. Laib’s sculptural installations of hand-harvested pollen fields, wax rooms, and rice mountains have synesthetic qualities that engage the senses in unusual ways — the fragrance of beeswax, the texture of pollen, the role of silence in viewing this complex work. In assigning tours of this exhibition, the education department primarily asked docents to serve as conversation starters and to answer questions about the work, while encouraging visitor exploration.

DMA head docent, Corinne Simpler, who has toured at the museum for over 3 years, developed a wonderful approach to simulate the process of the artist. Corinne brought from home materials similar to those use in The Rice Meals, 1983, a small jar of white rice and a brass plate. In the actual work, Laib constructs 26 rice mountains of almost identical height and depth spread over brass offering plates. Finding an isolated area outside of the galleries, Corinne asked a volunteer from her group of school children to experiment with building a mountain of rice like the artist. First, the student tried taking grains out of the jar using his fingers. When there appeared to be more rice stuck to the child’s hands than on the brass plate, he shifted to the tactic of pouring the rice directly on the plate. Focusing his attention on the concentrated act of pouring rice into a shallow container, the child became more aware of the challenges facing the artist in making each mountain the same height and depth. Corinne’s idea was later adapted by the education staff for use in an interactive gallery talk geared toward adult visitors.

The DMAs P.M. docent corps is a group of working professionals who tour in the evenings. Lane Banks is a practicing artist, who serves as an active museum educator and member of this group. Lane was recently awarded a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation for his work as a minimalist painter and often takes a process-oriented approach in his work with adult visitors. In discussing the museums Sol LeWitt’s drawing, which is made directly on to a wall of the main building, Lane researched the artist’s plans for similar wall pieces. He invited visitors to experiment with making their own drawings using a general set of instructions Lane prepared, similar to the type of guidelines developed by LeWitt:

Draw a square. Fill it with 10 lines drawn horizontally from one side of the square to the other, spaced as close together as possible. Draw a square. Fill it with 10 lines drawn from the upper right corner to lower left corner, spaced as close together as possible.

The resulting sketches from this activity yielded many different interpretations of the instructions and provided visitors with the sense of freedom that LeWitt, as artist, allows museum staff in interpreting and executing such unique works.

Process-oriented strategies, such as these, pull visitors more deeply into an artist’s creative process and allow visitors to use both creative and critical thinking skills. Such routes for involving the senses make more engaging and rewarding experiences for both the educators and their visitors.

Shin Yu Pai is a poet and writer living in Boston, MA. She is the former docent coordinator for the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, TX.

Pai, Shin Yu. “Get Into Your Work!: A Process-Oriented Approach to Engaging the Senses,” The Docent Educator 11.2 (Winter 2001-02): 16-17.


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