Transformative Education

March 1, 2017
Index Magazine

Transformative Education

It wasn’t enough simply to talk about or view works of art. To truly process the lessons of Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture 101 class, Introduction to Materials and Methods of the Artist, students actually had to make art. The Fall 2016 undergraduate seminar was a crash course in artistic expression and the process of creativity, with each week’s session focused on a different material or process, from paper making to fresco painting to clay sculpting.

“What this course showed me was the importance of materials in art,” said Yael Saiger, a sophomore concentrating in the history of art and architecture, in her final presentation for the course. “Art is never really a creation; it’s always a transformation of one thing to another. Art is also a representation of process, and that process does show up in the final piece.”

Throughout the semester, students were tasked with replicating and translating into various media an original object of their choice from the Harvard Art Museums collections. Taught by Francesca Bewer, the museums’ research curator for conservation and technical studies programs, in close collaboration with staff from the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, the innovative course met two days a week at the museums. Students would spend the first day of each week viewing works of art in the galleries or Art Study Center in a particular medium or technique, and they’d spend the second session of the week translating their chosen work of art into that medium in the Materials Lab. Conservators provided insights and instruction in their specialties. For instance, Tony Sigel, senior conservator of objects and sculpture and an expert on the working process of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, spent one session introducing the class to the museums’ world-class collection of Bernini terracotta bozzetti. The next day, students used clay to sculpt their own Bernini-style sketch models. Each of them also created a 3-D translation of their chosen image, which they later fired at the ceramics studio at the Office for the Arts at Harvard.

Hands-on Experience

Examples of works that students chose to translate throughout the term are Andy Warhol’s print Lenin (1987), Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s chalk drawing Aurea Catena (c. 1868), and an 18th-century Chinese porcelain vase. That artistic diversity was matched by the breadth of materials and methods introduced to students by museums staff.

Being able to translate an object using different techniques “gave students the chance to think about choices artists make as they work,” Bewer said, “and about the dynamic relationship between materials, tools, and makers. This is something that many people don’t necessarily understand. Being sensitized to this contributes to the appreciation of art.”

The 12 undergraduates in the course had varied levels of art experience and represented a range of academic disciplines—including economics, computer science, mathematics, and history.

Lieb Celnick, a junior who studies both the history of science and the history of art, said in his final presentation that the course shed light on similarities in his two concentrations. “In the history of science, one of the ways that people work with objects most closely is . . . [through] material culture studies,” and examining how individuals use or used objects for certain purposes, Celnick said. “I feel like this course was able to do the same for art history.”

Near the end of the semester, Bewer asked students to select and bring in their own material with which to create a mixed media work. Their choices were surprising, with everything from cassette tapes to glitter to gingko leaves. The chance to experiment with unconventional materials was a highlight for many in the course.

“During the mixed media session . . . we ended up copying or learning from our neighbors’ ideas,” said Sophia Feng, a senior concentrating in the history of art and architecture. She incorporated gingko leaves, mosaic tiles, handmade paper, and other materials in her mixed media piece, which interpreted Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print Suruga Street (1856). Feng said she and her classmates approached the session with open minds and a collaborative attitude. “Sally was doing this crazy thing with glitter, so I was like, ‘Wow, I really need to capitalize on that.’” Feng said. “And then Spencer saw me playing with my gingko leaves, and was like, ‘I really need to use that in my wax.’ There was this little chain of trickling-down influences, which was so cool.”

QQ Yang, a sophomore studying history and literature, used various shades of lipstick and other materials to translate an image of Alexei von Jawlensky’s Head of a Woman (c. 1911). In her final reflection, she said the exercise prompted her to consider the availability and even pricing of materials, as they related to artists’ creations. “I’m thinking much more about the materiality of works and what they’re made of and what those elements say about the work itself,” she said. “It’s not just about art historical concepts and how high-level theory applies to whatever is in the artist’s mind, but really what came out through the artist’s fingers.”

Model for Summer Studies

Besides serving as an important cornerstone of the participants’ academic studies, the seminar provided staff with the chance to experiment with elements of programming for the upcoming Summer Institute for Technical Studies in Art (SITSA). A new program supported by a $506,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, SITSA will give approximately 15 art history graduate students from across North America the opportunity to experience object-focused technical inquiry, methodologies, and instruction. The two-week program will be held this June.

Much like what the Harvard undergraduates experienced, SITSA participants will explore the multifaceted theme of translation through both close looking in the galleries and art making in the Materials Lab. They will also learn about different methods of examination, analysis, and conservation through interactions with curators, conservators, conservation scientists, artists, and partner institutions.

“We want to create more ambassadors for the integration of an object-based, interdisciplinary technical approach into the art historical field, both in academia and museums,” Bewer said. “Through the workshop we hope that the cohort of students will establish new connections in their own research, as well as among themselves and with the academic and museum professionals and artists they will be in dialogue with during these two intensive weeks together.”