The Effect of Art

Blue Water Silver Moon (Mermaid) 1991 by Kerry James Marshall

Blue Water Silver Moon (Mermaid), 1991 by Kerry James Marshall.  Photo copyright Dispatch.com.

I’m currently teaching one of my favorite classes: the Field Experience elective.  In this class, I plan a series of field trips on and around campus so students can explore their community as well as English, the field they are studying.

One of our recent trips was to the Wexner Center for the Arts, the campus art gallery.  The current show is Blues for Smoke, which explores Blues music as a “catalyst of experimentation within contemporary cultural production.”  Works in the show span several decades and include a variety of media.

As part of our trip, I ask each student to identify a favorite piece, which we later discuss in class.  One student chose the painting above.  We had talked in front of the painting and I helped her understand some of the vocabulary in the information placard next to the work:

Marshall’s portrait of a  mythical female nude lounging under the moonlight in a shimmering pond was inspired by a pulp comic book he was reading in the early 1980s.  He notes, “Up until then, I had not considered that a black woman could be considered as a goddess of love and beauty.  Even I took the classic European ideal for granted …. I wanted to develop a stylized representation of beauty that would be unequivocally black.”

We discussed how the painting includes faces from pulp romance novels that typify this “classic European ideal” for beauty and how the mermaid figure is beautiful and unequivocally black.

But what I interpreted as an interesting insight into the experience of African Americans was something that my student took to heart.  The next day, she shared that this was her favorite piece because she, too, had felt the pressure to conform to this classic European ideal of beauty in her native China.  For example, she and many of her friends stayed out of the sun so that her skin could be lighter and whiter.  But, in this painting, she discovered that black is beautiful — an idea she could relate to and share.

I wouldn’t have guessed that this piece of art would strike this student in this way.  But by exposing students to a wide variety of art, the opportunity for this to happen was created.  Never underestimate the power of art.  Or a good field trip.

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