Experience Art Through Empathy: Engagement Stations in the Giuseppe De Nittis Exhibition

Marketing and Communications Detail Amity Chan shares her experience at the engagement stations in An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis (on view through February 12).

In An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis, we see how De Nittis developed fruitful friendships with important impressionist painters like Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet through the uniqueness of his paintings and techniques. There is no doubt that art has the power to help us connect more deeply with ourselves and with others.

To replicate this experience, the Phillips team put together an engagement space in the exhibition for our visitors to connect deeper to De Nittis’s world of art as well as with other visitors. Through three interactive activities, we encourage visitors to look at, talk about, and write about the works of art in the exhibition. On the display walls, visitors could also learn from the perspectives of other people and reflect on how experiences often affect one’s worldview.

Station 1: Draw Together

Station 1: Draw Together

This activity requires two players. One as the describer and one as the drawer. The describer picks one of De Nittis’s paintings to describe to the drawer. Then, the drawer makes a drawing based on the visual description. After that, the two players look at the drawing and reflect on the activity together.

Station 2: Share Your Haiku

Station 2: Share Your Haiku

Write a haiku from the perspective of a person or object in an artwork of your choice.

Station 3: Personal Choice

Station 3: Personal Choice

Be a Phillips curator! Pick and create a collection from the artworks in the exhibition.

I tried out all three of the engagement stations. I found “Draw Together” the most interesting because it gave me the opportunity to work with another person and hear their views of art directly. I played as a drawer with my fellow Museum Assistant Elizabeth Cumbo. As someone who works in the museum and spends more time in the exhibition than any visitors, I thought it would be somewhat easier for me. However, it felt very foreign to visualize a painting based on my partner’s description and not be able to see the image that I was drawing. While making the drawing, I would also need to consider the fashion elements in 1870s Paris. For example, when Elizabeth described to me that both figures are wearing hats, I immediately thought of sun hats. However, in De Nittis’s painting, the male figure is wearing a top hat and the female figure is wearing a white hat with flowers. This made me realize that I was not only looking through the other player’s lens but also the artist’s lens. The final drawing is an end product of three worlds merged together: my own experience and imagination, Elizabeth’s description, and De Nittis’s view of Paris.

My drawing vs De Nittis’s painting

After completing each activity, visitors are encouraged to share the drawings and poems on the display shelves. It was fascinating to see other visitors’ works, especially the Haiku poems in which we are asked to write from the perspective of a person or object in the paintings.

Here are some interesting finds on the display shelves:

Visitor haiku

Visitor drawing

Visitor drawing

Visitor drawing

An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis is now on view through February 12. I highly encourage you to come and experience De Nittis’s 1870s Paris at The Phillips Collection.

 

 

The Story of Mama Lula

Artist Shiloah Symone Coley shares her experience interviewing Parklands resident Miss Lula and creating Mama Lula, an animation now on view at Phillips@THEARC about Miss Lula’s story.

Roses fill Miss Lula’s living room when you peer in through the street-facing window. It’s July 12, 2022, just over a week since her 89th birthday on July 4. The flowers transform her intimate living room into looking much more like the garden just outside her window.

Miss Lula pictured just after her July 4th birthday. Photo: Shiloah Symone Coley

Her flowers thrive in the mid-summer heat and humidity. She wears a red, white, and blue Washington, DC Nationals baseball t-shirt with a matching hat that reads “LOVE.” It’s not the fourth of July anymore, but something feels quintessentially American in a different way–not just her outfit, but her, all 5 feet of a July 4th baby now in her elder years. She’s seen so many 4th of Julys.

I met Miss Lula earlier that year during the winter at one of the Creative Aging programs at Phillips@THEARC. An intimate program that day, Donna Jonte and I were joined by Miss Lula and her friend Miss Pam. We ate, talked, and made art. But one of the most memorable parts of that day were the stories Miss Lula told about the work. There was a story behind every piece. So when I had the idea to interview Black women who lived around THEARC in the Parklands community, she landed first on my list.

As I walked into THEARC with her for our first interview, people at the front desk and coming in and out of the building immediately knew who she was. Not only were pleasantries exchanged, but updates on life events were eagerly shared. She seemed to carry about her a unique mix of warmness and honesty that let people know it was okay to be themselves and say how they were really feeling with her. It helps that she’s lived in the community in the same apartment for 60 years. She’s watched some of these folks grow up.

As I interviewed Miss Lula, what I found most interesting about her story was her persistence to stay in the Parklands community. I think as a child I often dreamed of leaving home, moving, doing my own thing. Then, in my adulthood I have become accustomed to a semi-nomadic lifestyle where I move every couple of years. Both forced migration and chosen migration run rampant across all eras but seems particularly normalized with younger generations. On my block in Northwest DC my roommate and I have noted half the people who used to live on our block have moved within the past year. As we noticed how quickly and frequently the shift occurs, we began to wonder what it means for the community when people are able to stay.

Miss Lula knows migration well. She arrived in DC at Union Station as a little girl with her siblings after her maternal grandmother sent them up north from South Carolina to be reunited with their parents, an experience not uncommon to most children growing up during the Great Migration. She would spend the rest of her life in Maryland and DC, and most of her life in her current residence in Parklands. Mama Lula is about one woman who has been able to stay and has chosen to stay in her community despite the changing landscape around her.

I originally set out to tell a story about the community from various perspectives with insight from multiple women from different generations. And perhaps that project will still take shape one day. But it became clear after interviewing Miss Lula, that her voice was deserving of its own project. Maybe the countless cards and flowers she received on her birthday were indicative of not just the lives she’s touched, but the importance of her as an elder in the community with a life and story to share.

But What Is It?

Phillips Educator Carla Freyvogel shares her experiences discussing art…and more…with a group of fifth grade students.

On a school tour with a theme of color, line, and shape, we enter into the gallery showcasing the many works related to the Jefferson Place Gallery. The plan was to look closely at Ben Summerford’s brilliant, tall, still life entitled The Blue Bottle, 1949-51. My lesson plan has us using a visual thinking strategy to look closely at The Blue Bottle, concentrating on the artistic choices made by Summerford.

That is not what my student wanted to discuss at all. Instead, her eyes are drawn to a small assemblage by William Christenberry that hangs on the wall perpendicular to The Blue Bottle.

William Christenberry, Akron Wall, 1987, Sheet metal, metal signs, wood, nails, and paint on wood panel, 9 x 12 3/8 x 1 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Julia J. Norrell in memory of Scotty McIntyre, 2009

“I want to talk about that work of art.” She points to the Christenberry. ‘What IS it?”

“What do you think it is?” I ask.

“It looks like a bunch of junk,” she says definitively. “But, I like it. It is interesting.”

We examine the wall text and learn it is called Akron Wall, was made in 1987, and is constructed of sheet metal, metal signs, wood, nails, and paint on wood panel. I explain that Akron is a city in Ohio. We muse about the title, the choice of objects, and its possible meanings.

“What about the rest of the work?” she asks me.

I looked at her, a bit confused. Akron Wall is very intriguing but it is small and contained. She points to a spot on the wall under Akron Wall. There is a tall, narrow rectangle, delineated by a rough edge, chipped and warped in places. A recessed rectangle marks one side along with a metal handle.

“That part of the art. It looks like it could be a door! I want to know about that. I wonder, what is behind the door?”

This door is not part of the artwork. There is a long discussion about what might be behind the door. A little man? A bottle of water? A bag of chips? What would be behind the door? Although the door has the same palette as Christenberry’s assemblage, incorporates metal, has similar repetitive shapes and has gray smudges of a well-worn, maybe found object, I can’t help but spill the beans.

“Well, it is not actually part of the artwork,” I explain. By this time all the students are invested in the door, and they are crestfallen, thinking that they are doing just what I have encouraged them to do: look closely and ask questions, ponder possibilities, and trust their insights since there are no wrong answers.

“It’s not part of the artwork? Well, it should be!” the student says defiantly. “If it is not part of the artwork, what IS it?”

I wanted to talk about the Summerford, not a door in the wall of the gallery. I should have asked the question back to them: “What do you think is behind the door?” But instead I try to guide the conversation back to the original topic I had planned for.

“I think there is a fire extinguisher inside. Now, let’s talk about the colors that Summerford used….”

“Oh man! A fire extinguisher!” someone exclaims. “Woah! Why would you need a fire extinguisher here?”

I could have used the moment to tell him about the fire the Phillips suffered in 2010, but instead I add, “Or a telephone.” Lots of discussion goes on among the students, and they request that I open it. I explain that I’m not allowed to touch the walls of the gallery and open the door.

Looking back on this, I think how intriguing it would be if this door had been conceived by Christenberry. The door introduces the unknown, and the idea of possibility. If there is a phone, who would call it? Could we hear it if it rang? If there is a fire extinguisher in there, would it have some lettering on it? Would the fire extinguisher be red and relate nicely to the worn lettering on the top left of the assemblage (a Coke bottle top)? Is the little space behind the door shallow, like the indented boxes within the Christenberry piece?

We have a brief conversation about the Summerford, the artwork I originally wanted to discuss. In fact, the students’ curiosity seems to have been piqued by the discussion of the possibilities introduced by the evocative door. It reminds me that adapting to students’ interests can ultimately enhance a lesson.

As we walk down to the bus, the student who started the discussion persists; she insists the door should be part of Christenberry’s assemblage: “Then it could be called Akron and Phillips Wall.”