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Writing Through the Arts

Somewhere between toddler and teenager, most young people misplace the wondrous creative drive that impels them to draw on every available piece of paper, dance around the room, and invent songs and stories. Yes, many of them still love to dance, draw, act, sing, but for the majority, “art” is for some other kid. Getting high-schoolers to reclaim their creative enthusiasm – especially in the face of the current emphasis on standardized academic testing – is a major challenge for docents.

The Neuberger Museum of Art, located on the grounds of Purchase College, State University of New York, has responded by developing a program called Writing Through the Arts, which integrates art museum experiences with high-school curricula. The Neuberger is fortunate to have a large collection of 20th Century American painting and sculpture, plus the only collection of African art in Westchester County. There are also several temporary exhibitions presented each year. The program’s goal is to introduce students to a broad scope of artistic expression and to help them articulate their perceptions of those art forms in poetry and prose.

We have been working with high-schools serving populations of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Each of the eight schools in the program has a liaison docent, whose first job is to bring a slide presentation into the classroom before the museum visit so that the students will be prepared for what they’ll be seeing. The 30- minute show might briefly cover some art history and then display images of some works in the exhibition the students are coming to see. The high-schoolers can see how the old relates to the new. They also become familiar with some of the paintings and sculpture and greet them as old friends when they see them in the museum. We sometimes quote Dorothy Parker’s great epigram, “A reproduction is exactly like the original, except in every respect.” Questions and comments are invited, but responses come quicker and better in the museum and the follow-up program.

When the students come to the Neuberger Museum of Art, their tour lasts an hour and a half. This sounds like a long time, but a remarkable number of them end with “Do we have to leave now?” “Can we come back?” For an hour, we have some didactic information, open-ended questions and discussions, note-taking, and brief activities; the last halt-hour is kept for a writing activity.

Especially at first, the students are more comfortable doing activities in pairs, and prefer talking to each other rather than to a docent. They are adolescents, after all, which also means they’ve got to be cool— and showing a lot of enthusiasm definitely is not— and often will stare off into the distance pretending to be somewhere else. But they do indeed listen and very quickly form opinions, and they are at their best when these opinions are paid attention to and respected.

For the last part of the tour, we often use an activity where students, working in small groups, are given a quotation and told, “You may agree or disagree with this quotation. Choose a painting that expresses your opinions about this quote. Describe what you found in this painting that supports your opinion.” The authors of these quotes have included Aristotle, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jean -Jacques Rousseau, and Eugene Delacroix. Sometimes the teacher has a writing activity she’d like her students to do in the museum and then develop back in the classroom. Sometimes the students just look around on their own (radical, dude!) and take notes.

Throughout the entire tour, the docents will have emphasized the idea that we “read” paintings, not necessarily “understand” them — that the artist’s language has a very limited vocabulary, consisting only of color, line, shape, texture, space, while a writer has thousands of words at his/her disposal. Some of the many similarities between writing and the visual arts are discussed. And the activities are all carefully designed not only to increase appreciation of the art they’ve seen, but to develop visual literacy and learn to articulate written as well as spoken responses.

This experience is followed up by a visit to the classroom by people professionally involved in the arts. They discuss their own work and/or that of the students; they talk about the creative process; and they encourage the students to ask questions and voice opinions, something some of them are reluctant to do in the strange environment of a museum. The large range of visitors has included a performance artist, a musician, an African “Djellebah” (storyteller and drummer), printmakers, poets, and painters.

And finally, the teacher will give out writing assignments. The high-schoolers have produced modern legends and folk tales after seeing African art; stream-of-consciousness poetry to reflect a morning of abstract art; critical essays for a newspaper; personal responses to a particular work; or comparisons between what they’re reading in school and what they’ve seen on the walls of the Neuberger Museum of Art.

Three museum visits will produce a rich variety of prose and poetry, and a great deal of effort by the teachers goes into this aspect of the program; it requires a lot of encouragement and a lot of tactful editing, both of which take many hours of their time. At the conclusion of the school year, the Neuberger hosts an award program for all the participating students and teachers. Their families are invited, refreshments are served, stories and poems are read aloud, prizes are awarded. Each students receives a Certificate of Achievement, and each school publishes a book of all its students’ writings, sometimes accompanied by sketches or computer graphics. And the students, we hope, go home feeling that they have participated in a program that I has empowered them not only in terms of intellectual development, but in their ability to recognize new relationships between language arts and the visual arts.

Tamara Greeman has served as a docent at the Neuberger Museum of Art for over 15 years. The Neuberger Museum of Art is part of the State University of New York and is located in Purchase, New York.

Greeman, Tamara. “Writing Through the Arts,” The Docent Educator 10.2 (Winter 2000-01): 4-5.


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