Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Teaching people how to 'see' art

They've heard an autistic child speak for the first time in front of his teacher, watched the glaze of boredom melt from a teen's eyes, and felt a tiny hand slip into theirs as they've walked among great paintings and sculptures.

The docents of the Toledo Museum of Art know the power of art to change, engage, and inspire, and they know how to get that power to the people who view the museum's treasures.

Like human transformers on an electric grid, they spark connections between works of art and groups of schoolchildren on class outings or senior citizens bent on enriching their retirement years.

It's all done with questions, strategic questions that direct the viewing and let people respond to a work of art without telling them what they see or demanding that they come up with a "right answer."

"We're not lecturers," said Susan Palmer, coordinator of docent education. "We don't just go out and give the facts. We engage with interactive questions."

On a recent weekday morning, for example, docent Gladys Rudolph was in the museum's Gallery 32 with a group of fidgety first-graders from Shoreland Elementary School who were seated on the floor in front of an ornate carved-oak piano made by Augustus Welby Pugin in 1837.

After discovering that one of the children thought the Pugin looked very much like an aunt's piano, Mrs. Rudolph seized the thought, asking questions like, "Does your aunt's piano have acorns on the top like this one?"

With the class fully engaged, she opened the instrument and sat down to play two pieces by Chopin and Mozart. Still seeking connections, she asked if the melody from the Mozart piece sounded familiar, eliciting instant recognition from the group: "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star!"

Mrs. Rudolph is one of a handful of docents who give a musical perspective on the museum's works of art. For most of the 100 docents, however, the focus is strictly on the visual arts. They may teach about color, line, and shape, about the museum itself, or how an artist takes a two-dimensional surface and makes it look three-dimensional with the use of perspective, diminution of space, fading colors, and details.

Before leading a tour, each docent is given a set of basic goals around which to design a lesson plan. "The tours aren't scripted," Mrs. Palmer said. "I may do mine with one set of objects, you may do another that introduces kids to cultures and different kinds of artwork. I may use the Boule commode. You may use a writing desk. We want [the tours] to be enlivened by each individual docent."

A docent teaching about color, for example, might ask a group, "What's the first color that jumps out at you?" If it's red, the docent may pose the question, "Why does the artist use red?" or "Why are our stop lights red instead of green?"

Someone teaching about landscape might take a group of children to a gallery and ask them to close their eyes and imagine that they are on a family vacation. With their eyes open, they can then pick which landscape painting holds the most appeal as a place to spend their imaginary day. "That's a way of getting children to describe a painting without saying, 'Describe this painting for me,' " Mrs. Palmer said.

A docent since 1976 who now serves in one of the program's few paid positions, Mrs. Palmer said every docent has his or her own style. "We try to work with the flair each individual has. Some are quieter and work closer with the kids. Some are larger in their speech and in dealing with the kids."

Whatever method they use, docents know from experience that once they establish a connection with a work of art, amazing things can happen.

Karen Klein, a docent since 1979, remembers the time she was with a group of children in one of the contemporary galleries talking about colors and how they make people feel. As she mentioned the color blue, an 8-year-old autistic boy suddenly said, "Blue is beautiful!" They were the first words his teacher had ever heard him speak.

Shirley Kohler, who often spent her Saturdays at the museum while growing up in the Old West End, recalls seeing Vincent Van Gogh work his magic on a group of disinterested high school students during the recent "Van Gogh: Fields" exhibition. Despite their initial indifference, she said, "As the tour progressed, and I was able to interact with them, their enthusiasm increased. At the end of the tour, they didn't want to leave and were bombarding me with thoughtful questions. I knew they would be back!"

Carolyn Seeman will never forget the little girl who took her hand and would not let go during a school tour. "She was enchanted with everything, including the building itself." The girl began to cry because she feared she could never come back and see the rest of the things.

Mrs. Klein said her greatest joy is helping people get "art smart" by giving them the ability to see more than they might have without a bit of direction. "It's fun to see people's eyes suddenly get that little, 'Oh, I see.'"

Docents, all but six of whom are women, come from a variety of backgrounds and are not necessarily schooled in art when they enter the volunteer program, Mrs. Palmer said, adding that a docent's most important quality is to be able to work and communicate with children and adults in an interactive way.

"The museum program teaches you about the art, but I can't teach you to be comfortable with kids."

Kristen Collins, a docent who studied art history in college but now works in retail, agreed. "It's great to have that art history background, but so much of the docent program is how to interact with people and elicit the information from them rather than give it to them."

Many docents are former teachers, although some come from nursing, law, psychology, banking, and other fields, Mrs. Palmer said. "It's people who are used to working either in team situations or in interactive situations where they have to work with the public. We need people who can greet children and adults at the door and make them feel comfortable here."

Deanna Johnson Ross, who became a docent 11 years ago after retiring from the Ohio Department of Human Services, said her main objective in working with students is to foster confidence in them about viewing art. "I just want the young people to be at ease with the art . . . so they can know they can go to any museum anywhere in the world and connect with a work of art that attracts them."

The grandmother of a 16-year-old, Ms. Johnson Ross also likes to remind teen groups that going to the museum is a great date destination. "I tell them that it's a good cheap date. You can walk through and hold hands, look at things, and whisper."

Ms. Collins said that for her, being a docent is about cracking the shells of young minds. "It's getting them excited, getting them to talk and tell me their ideas and what they see."

On one of her first tours, she recalled, the teacher leading the group pointed out a child who had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. "She said, 'I'm telling you now because he's going to be a pain for the whole tour,' and she carried on about how terrible he was. I was kind of steeling myself for this child that apparently was such a monster."

As it turned out, she said, " He gave the most creative, wonderful, knock-your-socks-off answers. Maybe in this venue, he responded a lot better. Art may be his bag -he gets it."

An information session for a new class of docents who will begin two years of training in May is planned for 2 to 3:30 p.m. today in the museum's Little Theater. Prospective docents will hear a brief presentation and have the opportunity to watch a docent in action. Those who cannot attend the session may obtain information and an application by contacting Susan Palmer at 419-255-8000.

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