Tuesday 26 March 2013

A Gallery educator's perspective

As an educator here at the Gallery, I often find that concrete examples to explain my job are sometimes hard to come by. The schoolchildren arrive, we whisk them in for one-hour gallery and studio sessions, and then they are gone two hours later.

While I work with the artworks on the floor everyday and have a very visible presence, sometimes the conversation and thinking that goes on in the programme feels like an exclusive club that only me and the students share together. So through various blogs I am going to attempt to reveal the complexities of my team's role through case studies, and my own personal inquiries.  

I think that if visitors could hear what the children say sometimes, they would be desperate to be a part of this group! To illustrate this I want to share a teaching moment that stands out to me still after a year and a half.

We regularly teach with Walter Sadler’s Married and on this occasion, it was for our Storytelling Foundation programme. I start by asking the group: what do they notice? You get the standard responses, of course: a garden, a man and woman on a bench, it looks old, they look like they have had a fight.

From these responses we move to: how do they know that? We look at gesture, facial expression, costume, and how these characters are telling us a story through these visual clues. We pose, pretending we are the man reading our books, or the woman who looks vexed and about to leave, scattering her roses on the floor. They come up with ‘speech bubbles’ on what the characters might be thinking ‘I wish he would notice me’, ‘I wish she would talk to me’, and ‘wow this book is interesting!’ We predict what happened before and what might happen next. 

Walter Sadler, Married
oil on canvas, Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

I am trying to move their thinking from just what they see to an interpretation, through questioning, asking for evidence and justifications. All the dialogue and discussion start to bubble and brew into a conversation about this artwork which is guided by their prior knowledge and their own experiences.

I move on to the setting and ask: how does that add to the story of the characters we have discussed? They notice the seat that blocks everything, they notice the abandoned badminton racquet on the ground, and then one child comments that the garden in the background looks like a maze. One says ‘but they can’t get to it?’ 'Why not?’ I ask. Pause. A bit more silence. ‘It's like they cannot find their way to each other's hearts’.

That insight by a boy of about eight years old rounded up the most insightful conversation I have had with anyone (not just children) in front of that work, or perhaps any work. Then the moment is gone, we line up to go outside, and they are off back to school. Moreover, just like the end of most of my sessions, I walk away wondering who learnt more: me or them.


jacqui reid said...

Yes - that is the joy of 'teaching', especially children. I love what you have written - it is so true.

I think we often understand a work instinctively - but cannot put it into words because we are unaccustomed to talking about artworks, and especially about how they make us feel. Feelings are hard to talk about, and concerning artworks - we are afraid to comment on them because we feel we don't know enough about them - and may get it wrong. Children do not have that inhibition. Adults shouldn't either. Go with our instincts - they are usually right.
Jacqui Reid

Unknown said...

Hi Jacqui

Thank you for your comment.
I completely agree, talking about artworks takes practice and can be daunting. Its even harder for adults if you are visiting the gallery alone, I even find it a struggle myself to have an internal conversation about art - having someone there to spark ideas off and talk to is vital I think. I love how children do not have that fear of right or wrong, they are so brave with their ideas.

I think what you have touched on is really interseting, how do we open up conversation and dialgoue for all our visitors, creating an environment where we eliminate the fear of right/wrong.


Anonymous said...

I saw the painting last time I was in Auckland; returning in May again and will be great to look at it again with 'new' eyes. The Gallery is superb! I make a point of coming each time I'm in the city.
Maree Roy [Martinborough]

Unknown said...

Hi Maree,

Thank you for your comment, its great that after reading this you will come back and re visit the work. I always find that with different children in everyday, the same piece of artwork can come alive in a completely different way. The multiple interpretations and perspectives that we bring to artworks through our own experiences is what I think makes talking about artworks so rewarding and enlightening.

Enjoy your next visit here!