Education: If You Give a Teacher an Art Museum...
September 10, 2015
Throughout June and July, 77 middle and high school teachers attended week-long summer teacher institutes here at SAAM. English and history teachers from 26 states, the District of Columbia, Japan, and South Korea came to the museum to re-invigorate their practice and learn how to integrate American art into their teaching. Phoebe Hillemann, teacher institutes educator, fills us in.
Have you ever wondered what teachers do during the summer while their students aren't in school? If you don't have a teacher in your life, you might imagine idyllic months of leisure without a thought to curriculum, standards, or lesson planning. But the lesser-known reality is that many teachers are using their own time —and often their own money— to attend summer professional development. "Professional development" has a way of instilling dread among educators, involving sterile classrooms and uninspired lectures on standardized testing. But what happens when professional development takes place in an art museum?
Regardless of their prior art experience, by the end of the week every teacher attending our summer institutes had built confidence in their ability to engage students and enhance learning through art. Through hands-on teaching practice in the galleries, collaboration with colleagues, and time with museum educators, curators, and content experts, teachers learned how to strengthen their students' abilities to "read" an artwork through close looking, making inferences based on evidence, synthesizing ideas, and clear communication, all essential skills for the 21st century learner.
"To say that it changed how I teach is an understatement," a past participant said in a phone interview.
Teachers who have attended past summer institutes at SAAM have told us since integrating American art into their teaching, students are more engaged in critical thinking with all kinds of texts. They also make connections between lessons and across disciplines and displayed increased empathy toward those with backgrounds and experiences different from their own. Many teachers also noticed increased participation from students who were typically hesitant to speak up in class. They saw art become an equalizer in their diverse classrooms, offering an entry point for learners at all levels. "Introducing art is a very egalitarian exercise," reflected another past participant. "Everybody is empowered because everybody can notice."
As a staff member, I felt re-energized. In the company of these teachers' fresh eyes, I discovered new things in artworks I've spent countless hours with. It never occurred to me that Ferdinand Pettrich's 19th century sculpture The Dying Tecumseh would have much in common with the Old English epic poem Beowulf, but after hearing a high school English teacher's passionate case these works are both examples of elegy (a meditation on death), I will never look at Tecumseh without this connection.
The most exciting result of the teacher institutes is knowing that artworks within the museum's walls have a vibrant life ahead of them in classrooms around the country, inspiring conversation, debate, and wonder. If you give a teacher an art museum, it turns out they will do incredible things.
Luce Unplugged: Five Questions with The North Country
September 3, 2015
While we're sad to see summer end, we can't wait for the next installment of our monthly local concert series Luce Unplugged, coming up on Thursday, September 10th from 5:30 – 7 p.m. The North Country, a Columbia Heights based psychedelic-meets-Americana band, will play a 40-minute set in the museum's Luce Foundation Center following an art talk on a work they chose from SAAM's collection. The band was selected by Stephanie Williams, editor of D.C. Music Download, the go-to source for D.C.'s local music scene and our new partner for Thursday Luce Unplugged shows. We talked to the band's frontman, Andrew Grossman, who shared insights on the artistic work-life balance struggle and how the band crafts music that you'll want to keep listening to.
Eye Level: On your website you lament that "disposability is something we unfortunately value in our culture today," and express your desire to create music that doesn't tire with repeat listens. How do you achieve this? Does this task have extra challenges?
Andrew Grossman: I have a theory that there's a correlation between the amount of time artists spend on their songs and how many times someone can enjoyably listen to them. The music I love is music I listen to over and over again and form a relationship with. I want my music to be the same way. The only way I can get that is by staying with it for months, playing it over and over again before I even bring it to the band. If I still find it interesting after all that then it's ready to be performed.
EL: For our readers who may be unfamiliar with your work, tell us about your associated house venue/artist collective The Bathtub Republic.
AG: The Bathtub Republic is the house I live in with Leah Gage of BRNDA and some other fine folks. We practice in the house and host shows. A good chunk of There is Nothing to Fear was recorded in the house, too.
EL: What do you love about the D.C. music scene?
AG: My favorite thing is how communal everything is. There's a real sense that we're all in this together and we should help each other out.
EL: Where do you see opportunities for improvement and growth in D.C.'s music scene?
AG: I think even with that sense of community, the notion that music can be something more than a hobby is still a little too far off the beaten path for a lot of people. Even some of the big names in the D.C. music scene are doing it in conjunction with a full time nine-to-five. Personally, I think it's a shame. I think some very talented people may be selling themselves short. It might just be a money thing, this city is ridiculously expensive, and maybe in cheaper cities it's different. Not that I'm in any position to tell people how to live their lives, but I guess my inner hippie just sheds a tear at the thought of an artist with a lot to offer sitting in a cubicle.
EL: Who are your influences?
AG: The works of Carl Sagan, George Harrison, Khalil Gibran, the TV series Cosmos, the album All Things Must Pass, and the book The Prophet, were all made the way your grandmother cooks: with love. You can taste it. I think so much today is made like some disposal commodity. All of these works were made as labors of love and they last because of it. I think that kind of earnestness is so valuable in any kind of work.
EL: If you could be remembered for one quirk...
AG: If I'm going to be remembered for any quirk it's probably pacing back and forth and snapping my fingers like a maniac. I'm told I do that a lot.
Catch the North Country in the museum's Luce Foundation Center (3rd Floor, West Wing) on September 10th at 6 p.m. (art talk at 5:30 p.m.).
Watch This: Write as Rain
August 26, 2015
"At your turning, each part of my body turns to verb," writes Evan Zimroth, in his poem Talk, You. The writing forms the individual letters that play across the screen in Text Rain, the video work from 1999, by Romy Achituv and Camille Utterback. Featured in the current exhibition, Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, Text Rain remains on view at SAAM through September 7.
Some works of art get people talking. This one does the communicating for you. Standing in front of a large projection screen, the video invites viewers to participate, to use, in Utterback's words, "... the familiar instrument of their bodies, to do what seems magical: to lift and play with falling letters that do not really exist."
Once the letters land on your shoulders like rain or snow, you'll begin to move. Your inner Isadora will be released and, even if others are watching, you'll perform. An arm, both arms, a leg, all the while the letters seem to be adhering to the outline of your body. This is choreographed, moveable type.
Text Rain has caught the imagination of our visitors who are sending out images of their Text Rain portraits via social media. Though created sixteen years ago, the work has a freshness due to its playfulness, thoughtfulness, and perhaps prescient nature into how museum-goers would evolve into active participants in museum experiences.
Only a few weeks remain before Watch This! closes September 7. Visit, and I promise, your body, too, will transform from noun to verb.
Q and Art: Torre di Schiavi
August 19, 2015
This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: Q and Art, where American Art's Research department brings you interesting questions and answers about art and artists from our archive. If you enjoy this post, take a look at others in our series.
Question: I enjoyed seeing the Thomas Hotchkiss painting Torre di Schiavi at SAAM. Does the painting show a real place that I would recognize if I visited, or is the scene from the artist's imagination?
Answer: Yes, Hotchkiss' painting depicts a real place that is open to visitors. Torre di Schiavi is the 19th century name for the ruins of a large villa said to be built by the Imperial Gordian family, which lived during the third century. An internet search for Villa dei Gordiani will find current and historical images of the site.
Located in the Campagna (the countryside surrounding Rome), the villa consisted of the mausoleum painted by Hotchkiss, luxurious baths and a large colonnade with three structures. In later centuries the mausoleum was used as a Christian church, faded frescoes depicting saints could be in Hotchkiss's time. Near the end of the Roman Empire the remains of the bath were converted to a military watch tower. A few artists visited the ruins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the site was largely ignored until archeological investigations began in the nineteenth century. Today the ruins are preserved within an archaeological park.
While the mausoleum ruins look remarkably the same one hundred fifty years later, one aspect of Hotchkiss' composition that has changed is the emptiness of the landscape. Today, communities populate the Campagna, and commuter trams move people between the suburbs and the city. However, in the 1800s many visitors noted the distinct line between Rome and the Campagna. Outside the city gates the uncultivated countryside held very few inhabitants. One of Hotchkiss' neighbors in Rome, American sculptor William Wetmore Story poetically described a journey through the Campagna: "The country now grows wild, desolate, and lonely; but it has a special charm all its own. . . .It is dreary, weird, ghostly, —the home the winds; but its silence, sadness, and solitude are both soothing and impressive." The beauty mixed with melancholy and a sense of risk drew many artists out of the city. Despite the modernization of the landscape, artists continue to find inspiration in the Campagna. For more recent artworks depicting the area check your local library or used bookstore for American photographer Joel Sternfeld's book Campagna Romana.
To learn more about Thomas Hotchkiss and Torre di Schiavi, look for the following article and book: Charles Eldredge, "Torre dei Schiavi: Monument and Metaphor" in Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 1 no. 2 (Fall 1987), pp. 14-33 and Barbara Novak, Dreams and Shadows: Thomas H. Hotchkiss in Nineteenth-Century Italy.
Take 5! Storytellers and Crooners
August 14, 2015
On August 20, our monthly series, Take 5! will feature the Smithsonian Institution's James Zimmerman who will celebrate "Storytellers and Crooners." Focusing on jazz vocalists, Zimmerman and his ensemble will highlight the artistry of great musicians by bringing the narrative of song to SAAM's stage. Zimmerman works as a Senior Producer for Special Initiatives at the National Museum of American History. And, in his role, he has interviewed seminal jazz artists for the museum's Jazz Oral History Program. James Zimmerman took some time to fill us in about these jazz artists and their influences.
Join us for an exciting evening of vocal Jazz with Storytellers and Crooners: African American Male Vocalists featuring the songs popularized and recorded by "storytellers" Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, and Oscar Brown, Jr. and "crooners" Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, and Bill Henderson. These African American vocalists have been quite influential to the legacy of jazz, and are worthy of greater recognition. The "storytellers" came out of the bebop tradition adding lyric/songwriting to their artistry. The "crooners" are romantic song stylists who came out of the ballad/American Popular Song tradition (with the exception of Eckstine who was also a bandleader, instrumentalist, and songwriter).
Their respective repertoires are extensive and their ability to bring new life and vivid imagery to bebop jazz instrumentals and American Popular Song remains an enthralling and innovative aspect of the American music tradition.
These vocalists loved bebop and wanted to be a part of the new, creative and energetic genre—modern jazz—introduced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They wrote lyrics to compositions by the composers and jazz soloists. One of my earliest introductions to jazz vocals was through the song, Moody's Mood for Love, written by Eddie Jefferson. This song, based upon saxophonist James Moody's improvisation is the first recognized example of vocalese —the art of setting lyrics to recorded jazz instrumental standards, then arranging voices to sing the parts of the instruments. That song also influenced renown songwriter/vocalist, Jon Hendricks . Having written vocalese lyrics and songs for Louis Jordan and others, extending that concept of writing lyrics for full big band jazz orchestra excited him and led to his partnership with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross to establish the smashing vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Oscar Brown, Jr. was, as Duke Ellington expressed, "beyond category"; he was an intellectual, social activist whose music captured the historical, theatrical, and authentic expression of Negro culture.
While primarily know as a crooner, Billy Eckstine was a composer, songwriter and one of the first bandleaders to present modern jazz "bebop" featuring many of the jazz heavyweights we know today. In 2008, I helped secure the collection of pianist Bobby Tucker, musical director for Billy Eckstine from 1949 until Eckstine's death. This collection is available at National Museum of American History. In the early 80s, I fell in love with Johnny Hartman's recording with John Coltrane. He was a quintessential balladeer, and I cherish the time I met him at Blues Alley when encouraged me as a singer. Bill Henderson was a wonderful mystery to me who's beautiful and heart- felt interpretations resonated with the melancholy romantic in me. He is the least recognized of these artists because he chose to have a duel career tracks as a vocalist and film actor.