The Pyrenees---Southern France

The Pyrenees---Southern France

Friday, July 29, 2011

All in the Eye of the Beholder...

two panels of an 6-panel painting by Gerhard Richter
This painting covers most of one very large wall in the St. Louis Art Museum.

       For three days this week I was at our city's art museum, taking a workshop. Teacher-writers from three National Writing Project sites came together to explore how art could enrich children's lives as well as thicken up their writing and thinking and math and science and social studies so that it will end up a meaty, flavorful broth.

        (So don't ever talk about teachers' three-month vacation. None of us were paid to do this.  We did it because we're suckers for committed to our students. And besides that, the museum has the coolest paper and gigantic clipboard paintings to work with.)

      For one activity, we went into one of the galleries filled with extremely abstract paintings. This Richter painting (part of it is shown above) was on one wall, but our facilitator sat us in front of the (also large) painting on the opposite wall of Richter's work.

      I breathed a sigh of relief, because looking at both of them, I connected more with the one we were going to study.  The Richter...too abstract, too "out there," too weird.

       After talking 10 minutes or so about our task at hand, our facilitator said, "Now turn around, because the painting we are going to be working with is behind you."

        Oh no! The Richter!

        And for close to two hours, we dived into the painting and when we were forced to surface at the end, it was reluctantly. We "moved" through the painting (physically), we made noises that corresponded with particular parts of the painting, we wrote about the painting, we drew what the painting compelled us to draw, and we created 3-D "visitor guides" for the painting. (People gathered and watched, curious about what we were doing, and why...)

        Our facilitator noted that docents have no idea what to do with this painting. They run-walk by it, saying, "And here's a very famous painting," and (probably) pray they don't get any questions about it that are not answered by the label on the wall.

       It's all in our eyes. If we just dismissively rush by a painting, a person, a poem, or a story without looking deeply, we miss out.

        So the next time you see a piece of art you don't instantly connect with, the next time you see a person who doesn't look like they're your "type," the next chance you get to read a story that isn't what you're normally drawn to, stay there for a while. You might find that depth leads to clarity... 


  1. I have found this to be true. Many times, when I have actually given something a chance, I like it. Not always. But often enough.

  2. OK. It's a monster encased in ice. I have an hour and fifty-nine minutes left. Next painting?

    Sadly, my perception of art rivals that of my husband's perception of literature. Neither of us are noted for our depth.

    I commend your effort for delving into the dreaded Richter to whip up a hearty dish designed to satiate your peckish students.

  3. Cool post, Sioux. I'm with Val on the weird art-work....I just don't "get" a lot of it, but hey...what do I know? I do, though, agree wholeheartedly with your comparison about people!

  4. Good lesson all around. That happened to me with Heart of Darkness in college. Ended up loving it.

  5. Great post, Sioux. You've been offering up great advice recently, and this certainly qualifies. I don't always "get" art beyond knowing what I like (although I can't always say why I like it) and what I don't. A good reminder that the surface of something, or someone, is never the whole story.

  6. Sioux! Excellent writing about our experience...already!! I was telling one of my students about it today. It would be great to set up a blog site such as this for our classes. From,
    Debbie Rudolf your collaborating partner

  7. An eye-opening post, for sure.

    My additional comment to "it's all in our eyes" is "and our brains."


  8. Sioux,

    Thank you for sharing. The experience Mike Murawski took us through to delve into Richter's painting took me by surprise. First look, I had no sense of the painting. Mike's sequencing allowed me to re-experience the painting multiple times in numerous ways. What surprised me was how very present I was by the time I drew and wrote. I lost track of time and place - experiencing art without having to necessarily have any clearcut analysis. And bonus was being able to share what I had created with a partner. Collaboration in Art - awesome. Patti Swank

  9. Fireblossom--I too sometimes come up clueless, even after some study.

    Val--I am sure you can say the same: It's amazing how often our students surprise us with their depth, if we give them the chance.

    Becky--I used to be more dismissive about abstract art until I did an exercise more than 20 years ago. We had a variety of shapes in different colors, along with a plain piece of white paper. (The same shapes and the same number of shapes on a painting I looked at and instantly thought: Stupid.) We were expected to make a "painting" by arranging the shapes any way we chose. You'd be surprises (as was I) how many times I rearranged the shapes. It was a lot more difficult than I assumed it would be.

    Tammy and Lisa--You two make me look at things more deeply with the things you write about.

    Debbi--I talked to my principal about our collaboration. She says it sounds like a fantastic idea.


    Donna--For sure. I guess my brain was not fully engaged when I only credited the eyes (ha).

    Patti--I saw your photo on the wall in the back office at SLAM. It said, "Patti--Cupcake Mule" and there was a huge red line going across you diagonally. Does that mean you might have trouble getting in there from now on?

    Just askin'...

  10. It's tree bark ~ it's inner reflection ~ it's the skin of an alien, the heart of the moon. It's a colour without name. It's poetry :)


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