Teaching with Birthday Presents

By Jenny Marvel, Head of K12 and Community Programs, Ackland Art Museum

Genius is looking at things in an unhabitual way.
Work in areas where you are unsure, in places you’ve not been before.
Corita Kent[1]

I love the work that I do in the Ackland’s education department, especially learning about specific works of art, artists, and art-making techniques and then finding ways to share this information with others—whether with our volunteer docents, K12 students and teachers, or community groups visiting the Museum. Often, I find inspiration from one or two pieces within an exhibition, and our current show, Birthday Presents, is no exception! This exhibition showcases major works of art that have been donated or promised by generous friends and supporters, specifically honoring the Museum’s sixtieth anniversary.

Over the past month, I’ve been reading about an artist that I did not know much about, Sister Corita Kent (American, 1918 – 1986). Corita was an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice. At eighteen, she entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary religious order, eventually teaching in the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles for twenty-seven years (1941 – 1968). Often including advertising images, song lyrics, and literature, her prints of the 1960s reflect the Pop Art style.

Although I enjoy her art, I am most inspired by Corita’s teaching philosophy on how to see and experience the world. After reading Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit, which details the teaching methods developed by Corita Kent and her mentor, Sister Magdalen Mary at Immaculate Heart College in the 1950s and 60s, I found many similarities to my own personal life/work philosophy. I was also pleasantly surprised that many of her close looking and creative thinking “assignments” for her students echo gallery experiences that we currently use in the Museum!

She encouraged students to slow down, make close and careful observations of the world around them, and draw. She had them use a viewfinder, a small handheld tool with a square cut out, to see their environment through a new perspective—for she wanted the students to develop what she termed their “seeing muscles.”  According to Corita, using a viewfinder “helps us take things out of context, allows us to see for the sake of seeing, and enhances our quick-looking and decision-making skills…You can then view life without being distracted by content. You can make visual decisions—in fact, they are made for you.”[2]

Now it’s time to put your “seeing muscles” to work! Try making your own viewfinder by cutting a rectangular hole out of a heavy piece of paper or cardboard. Hold the viewfinder in one hand and look closely at the details of an object (a shoe, a tree, a car, etc.). What details become more noticeable with your viewfinder? This tool, like a magnifying glass, can be used to see individual parts of a whole object. Go and explore the natural world or use inside at home or at the Ackland Art Museum!

As I wrap up this post, I wanted to leave you with another looking assignment found in Learning by Heart. This one encourages the viewer to spend time looking closely and making detailed observation notes. Good luck and enjoy!

Looking Assignment: Nothing is the Same

When we give names to things, we often assume that everything that goes by that name is alike.

Take something in nature—two dandelions—and look at them for five minutes. List how they are different from each other. Take two leaves from the same tree and do the same thing. Take two peas from the same pod and do the same thing. Nothing is the same. No thing is the same. Everything is itself and one of a kind.

After doing this for a week, look back at these pairs of things again and make a new list. You will find more differences because you have been exercising your powers of observation.

Jenny Marvel, the Head of School and Community Programs at the Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill, earned a BA in Art History at the University of North Texas (1998) and an MA in Historical Administration from Eastern Illinois University in 2001. Previous to her employment at the Ackland Art Museum, Jenny worked in a variety of education departments including The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, The Museum of Flight (Seattle, WA), and the Dallas Museum of Art. Jenny’s experience includes developing, implementing, and assessing school and community tours, online resource materials for students and teachers, and cross-cultural and interdisciplinary teacher workshops.

[1] Kent, Corita and Jan Steward. Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. (New York: Allworth Press, 2008), 21.
[2] Ibid, 26.
Corita Kent (American, 1918 – 1986); Made for Each Other, 1969; offset lithograph reproduction of a 1967 screenprint; Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gift of William A. Koehnline in honor of the Museum’s 60th Anniversary, 2018.27

Exposure and Conservation: Presenting the Peck Collection in Perpetuity

The theme of the second in our ongoing series of selections from the recently donated Peck Collection of Dutch and Flemish drawings is “Ruins.” The topic of transience and decay seems an appropriate prompt for a quick discussion of the effects of time and exposure, not only on the grand structures of the Dutch and Roman past but also on 17th-century drawings themselves.

At the Ackland, we are often asked why the Pecks’ wonderful gift is not permanently on view in its entirety. Are we not proud and thrilled at this extraordinary enrichment of the Ackland collection and the cultural landscape of North Carolina? Indeed we are – so much so, in fact, that we not only yearn to show everything to everybody, but we add another dimension to that wish: everything to everybody, forever.

It is this last word, “forever”, that provides a clue to the answer as to why our visitors cannot see all 134 Peck Collection drawings, including the seven by Rembrandt, all the time. When museum folk think about the institution’s audience, we think not only of our many and diverse constituencies visiting in 2017, but also of all the possible visitors of the year 2117, or 2217, and beyond. Our commitment is to preserve masterpieces of human creativity for as long as humanly possible (you’ll sometimes catch us uttering the phrase “in perpetuity”).

To achieve that, works of art that are sensitive to the effects of light must be protected from over-exposure. Light can fade inks and darken paper; it can even, in the worst case, make a work of art disappear. Therefore, we carefully control not only the level and type of light that all drawings in our collection are exposed to, but also the length of time they are on exhibition.

We are hard at work on a website that will showcase all the Peck Collection drawings in very high resolution digital images, with commentary and information. We will also present a full-scale exhibition of the entire gift, with a scholarly catalogue, as soon as we can – probably in four or five years. Until then, I encourage you to return to the Ackland regularly, as our focused selection of works from the Peck Collection will change every few months, offering fresh perspectives, themes, and questions. And I invite you to peruse the collection on our current public database.

The Peck Collection offers us exquisite examples of human creativity, “rescued” by the collectors from the contingencies of history and time. It is our job to ensure that these well-preserved masterpieces do not themselves become ruins, unavailable to future generations in their full glory. Your grandchildren and great grandchildren and on “into perpetuity” will silently thank you for your understanding.

Hendrik Hondius the Elder, Dutch, 1573-after 1649: Ruins of Castle Spangen, n.d.; Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over black chalk on paper. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Peck Collection, 2017.1.45.

Meet the Staff: Lauren Turner

LAUREN TURNER is Assistant Curator for the Collection.

TurnerHow long have you been at the Ackland?
I started at the Ackland in January 2009 as a Curatorial Assistant.

What brought you to the Ackland?
My long-term goal was to work in a museum, and I was an undergraduate alumna of the Art Department at UNC-Chapel Hill. When the job posted, it seemed like it was a sign from the universe to return to campus. Also, in her annoying habit of inevitably being right, my mother told me that I would be an idiot to not apply.

What do you do at the Ackland?
My current title is “Assistant Curator for the Collection,” but it encompasses more than researching, growing, and exhibiting the almost 18,000 objects of our collection. I also coordinate catalogue publications, act as a project manager (and sometimes curator) for our changing exhibitions, and introduce interns and student assistants to the many different types of tasks in a museum career. Continue reading

Meet the Staff: Nathan Marzen

NATHAN MARZEN is the Ackland’s Chief Preparator.

How long have you been at the Ackland?
I started in May 2013.
 
What brought you to the Ackland?
I like the environment of a university museum and the focus on using the collection and exhibitions for education. When I interviewed, I was particularly impressed with the Ackland’s use of the Study Gallery. It’s a small enough museum to give me a variety of experiences and there’s a staff here that is ambitious enough that we do a lot of big things. We’ve also got a diverse collection with a lot of interesting art to work with.
 
What do you do at the Ackland?
As Chief Preparator, I am involved in many different aspects of exhibitions and collections care. I lead exhibition design, preparation, and installation. I manage the art storage vaults, the movement of artwork, and special projects such as our recent addition of color (on the walls) and replacement of carpet in the galleries.

Continue reading

“America Seen”: Sneak Preview (the intern’s favorite)

This semester at the Ackland, I’ve been conducting research and writing interpretative text for the exhibition America Seen: The Hunter and Cathy Allen of Social Realist PrintsThrough this process I’ve become very familiar with the prints in the show and wanted to share one as a first impression and in advance of the opening reception this evening.

Subway

Fritz Eichenberg, American, born in Germany, 1901–1990: Subway (Sleep), 1935; wood engraving. Ackland Art Museum, The Hunter and Cathy Allen Collection, 2013.21.13.

America Seen features 38 prints from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s by American artists. The majority of the artists represented in the exhibition lived and worked in New York City. They were inspired by the scenes of everyday urban life they witnessed around them and the subway was a popular theme. One of my favorites prints, Subway (Sleep), falls into this category. Although the print depicts a rather unremarkable moment in the daily life of any New York City subway rider, I’m drawn into the composition through Eichenberg’s use of strong contrasts between light and dark, as well as his careful attention to realistic details inside the subway car, such as the straps, signage, and advertisements.

I can empathize with the occupants of this train car, from the weary, young couple at the far end to the child sleeping in her mother’s lap. I have also been on the subway, tired after a long day, and eager to get home. But where are these people going? What were they doing before? Perhaps the proud and poised woman in a stylish hat is headed to a party or to church. Is the man to her left her companion or a stranger? With a souvenir balloon as a clue, I suspect the collapsed child is returning home from a fun day at the park. While it is impossible to know for sure, the artist, Fritz Eichenberg, invites us to look and speculate about the lives of those pictured. Continue reading