“What do you see?”
Andrew Cappetta, Assistant Curator of Academic Programs at the University of Rochester’s Memorial art gallery, asks the question to the group of eight students sitting in front of him. Students are enrolled in a composition course taught by Stella Wang ’00 (PhD), Senior Lecturer in Writing at the College. They are surrounded by portraits, some that look familiar and traditional, others less so.
Without any background information, the students inspect the painting in question, that of the American artist Kehinde Wiley. After Memling Portrait of a man with a letter-and then share their observations.
The 2013 painting is based on a work by the Northern Renaissance painter Hans Memling (1430-1494). Memling placed his subject – most likely a Flemish merchant – against a pastoral scene, while Wiley portrayed a 21st century African-American man in a similar pose and setting.
Marta Kontny ’17, a senior from Bytom, Poland, points out that you typically don’t see portraits of a black person posing in front of a pastoral backdrop, questioning the artist’s intention to do so.
Sarah Pursell ’20, a freshman from Allentown, Pa., Brings out the contrast between the white clothes worn by the subject in Wiley’s painting and the dark clothes in many portraits from previous centuries that surround the Wiley room at the gallery.
Other students share different observations and a discussion about the artist and the work develops.
The exercise is part of a partnership between the Writing, speaking and argumentation program and the art museum which started in the 2015-16 academic year. Deborah Rossen-Knill, associate professor and program director, worked with the museum to help build the partnership.
“The Memorial Art Gallery and the Writing, Expressing and Arguing program work well together because the position of the critical viewer aligns with the position of the author of critical research,” says Rossen-Knill. “The aim is to help students develop this critical position in different contexts and modes of communication. “
“Teaching with objects can be a great way to get students to think about something they hadn’t thought of before,” says Marlene Hamann-Whitmore, director of McPherson University Programs at the museum, who helped launch the partnership. “We have basically 5,000 years of guest writing.”
Wang is one of the many Writing, Speaking, and Argumentation instructors who have benefited from this partnership. Cappetta notes that he works with instructors to tailor the tour to their needs and those of their students. The duo chose to have their students focus on Wiley’s portrayal to open a discussion of code meshing – a writing strategy Wang describes as a “mixture of languages, local varieties, or registers.” – in a visual context.
According to Wang, writers and artists embrace the mesh of codes “to both work with and transcend the ‘norm’ for the purposes of communication and argumentation.” Students apply what they have learned in one of their class assignments. In addition to a traditional research paper, students create a related project using the code mesh to reach an audience that would benefit from the results.
Wang also sees benefits in the visit that go beyond any particular assignment. Talking about a work of art “helps students think about the needs and expectations of the audience,” Wang says.
The collaboration is loosely based on the successful Art and Observation Initiative, a long-standing partnership between the School of Medicine and Dentistry and the Gallery that aims to help medical workers – doctors, nurses, chaplains of hospitals – to provide better patient care.
The Art and Observation initiative has inspired many efforts to expose students to the educational resources provided by the museum. In November, Eastman School of Music freshmen enrolled in the Eastman Colloquium – a course on the sounds, meanings, and uses of music in various contexts – explored the links between music and the visual arts during of a visit there. Art history, history and English lessons also used the museum as a resource.
Hamann-Whitmore sees something special in the engagement of the freshmen who make up most of Wang’s class.
“They’re new to college, they haven’t figured out which part of town they’re comfortable in yet,” she says. “They are being remade, that’s what you do when you go to university. Now is the perfect time to show them that the Memorial Art Gallery is a truly wonderful place.