On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001


A Seminar in "Amerian History Through Art"

By Elisabeth Roark

I have always regarded my career path as somewhat schizophrenic. I first worked as a museum educator at the Carnegie Museum of Art while pursuing coursework for a masters and Ph.D. in art history at the University of Pittsburgh. After completing the Ph .D. in 1991, my professional life was evenly split between tenure track positions at two colleges (during which I continually dragged my students to the museum) and a curatorship at the Carnegie in the education department (during which I taught as adjunc t faculty at local universities). I viewed myself as an odd hybrid, immersed in the erudite world of academe, yet drawn to the museum environment, where I could share my enthusiasm for art with visitors of all ages and all backgrounds, and teach in front of real works of art instead of in a darkened classroom with slides.

I offer this brief vita as a way of explaining my instant attraction to the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute. When Chatham College, where I currently hold an appointment as an assistant professor of art, Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Publi c Schools first received an implementation grant to develop a teachers institute based on the Yale-New Haven model, I leapt at the opportunity to combine the two halves of my professional life. I realized that through a PTI seminar I could have an impact on a range of learners. I worked, therefore, to design a course that would utilize my training as an art historian and an educator.

The result was “American History through Art,” a seminar that examined the ways in which artists represented — and misrepresented — “America” before 1900. At the foundation of the course was the belief that analyzing works of art can help us understand our history, and studying history can provide us with a deeper understanding of the works of art. I organized the seminar chronologically and thematically, focusing on “hot-button” issues in the field that the seminar Fellows selected from a list of poss ible topics at the beginning of the course. Topics included perceptions of the family in Colonial portraiture, landscape painting and national identity (as embodied in paintings like Frederic Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, illustrated h ere), gender roles in genre painting, and images of African Americans in post Civil War sculpture — all controversial issues that would, I thought, generate lively discussion.

In designing the seminar, I had three overarching objectives in mind. First, I wished to promote visual literacy. We are taught how to read in grade school, but not how to look, a skill essential for survival in our increasingly visual culture. Second, I wanted the Fellows to recognize that every work of art is a construct behind which exist various agendas — those of a work’s creator, its patron, and its audience. Related to this, works of art are not simply “responses to” or “illustrations of” their historical context, but actively shape meanings, values, and attitudes. And third, I wished to explore the city of Pittsburgh as an urban classroom of sorts, using public works of art accessible to the Fellows and their stud-ents to supplement the reproductions we studied in class. Below I highlight three of the more memorable experiences I had leading the seminar that related, in un-anticipated ways, to my objectives.

About half way into the course, after reading several articles which typically dedicated dozens of pages to analyzing single works of art from a range of perspectives, I sensed something brewing in Frank Barbera, a shop and graphic design teacher at Oliver High School, one of our toughest city schools. Frank sighed. “Come on, Doc, how can anyone get so much out of one painting? Isn’t this taking things too far?” Some of the other Fellows nodded their heads in agreement. Taken aback, I immediately flashed to my eighth-grade English teacher’s lecture on To Kill a Mockingbird, and my skepticism at her analysis of the symbolic meaning of the mad dog. How could she know what Harper Lee had in mind? Over the next week I realized that I wished to underscore my conviction that paintings are texts as rich as any written document, and my belief that we need to train everyone’s eyes to read visual texts, grounded, of course in the study of the culture from which the work can not be separated . Could a seminar like this encourage the Fellows to promote this idea in Pittsburgh’s public schools? As the course progressed, I noticed the Fellows growing in confidence when “reading” unfamiliar works of art.

That the work of art does not replicate “reality” but functions as an embodiment of particular agendas and cultural circumstances is a basic assumption of art historians. One of the primary challenges the Fellows face, of course, is to translate adult material interpreted by adults to elementary and secondary school students. After spending two class periods deconstructing Colonial portraiture and images of Native Americans, Julie Gillis, a fourth-grade teacher at Burgwin Elementary, came to our next meeting with news. She had tried analyzing an image in this way with her students. They were studying Pocahontas, and Julie asked them to examine a seventeenth-century portrait of Pochohontas in their textbook. “She has red hair,” one of the students commented. “Her skin is very light,” recognized another. “Why is she wearing that fancy dress with the high collar?” asked a third. This led to a discussion of the Disney movie Pocahontas, and the dis-tinction between historical fact and subsequent interpretations of history, resulting in the student’s recognition that even if a work of art is published in a textbook or displayed in a museum, it does not automatical ly mean it is “truth.” Instead, we must consider whose history we are reading or seeing. Who created the image or wrote the history, and why? In seminar we examined a painting by John Mix Stanley, a mid nineteenth-century painter of western scenes, titled Osage Scalp Dance, which shows a white woman and child terrorized by a circling crowd of menacing Indians. Why was this image painted? Who was it painted for? And what does it reveal about perceptions of Native Americans at a time also mark ed by the Trail of Tears and Manifest Destiny? When the Fellows seemed at a loss to answer such questions I asked what their students might say about the image. How would they respond to it, how would you guide them in experiencing it? This lead to produc tive discussions linking pedagogy and content. Joanna Hattrup, an art teacher at Burgwin Elementary, built an exceptional unit titled “The Art of the American West and the Culture of the Cowboy” around such questions and the mythic messages of images of the American West.

The seminar’s use of the city of Pittsburgh as an urban classroom was an initial exploratory effort, a test case for a future seminar I hope to design based completely on public art. Chatham is uniquely situated as a small woman’s college in a thriving urban center with rich cultural opportunities. My objective in designing the field trips for American History through Art was to emphasize experiential learning and the value of studying real works of art as opposed to reproductions. Seminar field trips included a visit to the Chatham College Art Gallery to view an exhibition of eighteenth and nineteenth-century prints of the city of Pittsburgh, which complemented Frank Barbera’s unit on the history and techniques of graphic design in the United States. He was a considerable resource during the visit, talking almost as much as I, the exhibition’s curator, did. We also visited the Carnegie Museum of Art to study a fine collection of American paintings and sculptures, focusing on images of African American s by David Gilmour Blythe and by the anonymous creator of a painting of a slave market dated c. 1860. This experience was most relevant to our unit on images of “the other” in American art, and engendered animated discussions and an opportunity for the Fe llows to exercise their developing skills of visual literacy. The third field trip was the most unusual. We spent the afternoon at Allegheny Cemetery, a prototypical example of a cemetery created during the mid-nineteenth century “rural” cemetery movement . Here, several teachers who work near the cemetery realized its potential for lessons on the history of American sculpture and architecture, explorations of the changing attitudes towards death and heaven, and the cemetery as a microcosm of society at la rge.

The final curriculum units reflected the course content and course objectives in a number of significant ways. Several of the Fellows designed units based on art about or by African Americans, including Judy Lutz, who developed a timeline of images tha t address key moments in African American history for her kindergarten class at McKelvey Elementary, a predominantly African American school in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Two Fellows took the broad theme of the course, how artists represent “America,” an d developed units based on the concept of the American Dream, combining works of art and literature to explore this topic. Tish Rygalski, an English teacher at Fort Pitt Elementary, and Michael Wantorek, Fort Pitt’s art teacher, worked together to define a unit that would span the second and third grades. Organized around themes in painting including portraiture and self-portraiture, cityscapes, and scenes of everyday life explored through written and studio art projects, the unit culminates in a year-end exhibition of the students’ work, as reflected in the unit’s title: “Collecting Our Pasts: Making Museums in Our Lives.” And for me personally, it was through teaching “American History Through Art” that I reconciled my professional dichotomy, redefining my career path as not at all contradictory but complementary, for at the foundation of museum work, academic art history, and the seminar is the belief that art is an exceptional tool for teaching and learning, and a vehicle for social change.


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