Welcome to NatureISpiritIArt

Museum Educator Carla Freyvogel shares her experience at the first session of the NatureISpiritIArt workshop on art and climate change.

At the end of the day, it is all about relationships. Relationships to each other, relationships to our own best and worst selves, relationships to art . . . and relationships to nature.

We began the first session of NatureISpiritIArt by establishing our relationships to each other. Using the “Art Card Game” produced by The Phillip Collection as a starting point for conversation, we exchanged ideas, connecting images of artworks to our personal stories. There were landscapes that reminded us of home in California, abstracted images that evoked moods, and colors that stimulated memories.

Aparna Sadananda then led a meditation in front of Self Portrait as a Tree, 2000, by Sam Taylor-Johnson, bringing us in and out of our visual relationship with the photograph on one hand and the inner workings of our minds on the other.

Aparna Sadananda leads a meditation in the galleries

With Joshua Shannon and Robert Hardies, facilitators of the five-week course, we pondered the degree to which we could see the human hand at work in Self Portrait as Tree. We identified the man-made, geometric structure of the shed, the rough-hewn rails of the fencing, the cultivated field juxtaposed with a cluster of wild grasses, and the two-track of dirt, the result of repeated visits by a pickup truck. What really is the relationship of humans to the natural world? If we begin to examine art through an “eco-critical lens,” we focus in on the underlying messages about how humans relate to the natural world.

In a post-meditative calm, we roamed the gallery, looking beyond Self Portrait with Tree to the other landscapes on the wall. Practicing our “eco-critical lens” we see these in a new light. Might we be in a soft, accommodating space with nature, coexisting as in George Inness’s Moonlight, Tarpon Springs? Are we exploitative, as we parade down the ramp of a bridge meant for show, as in Julian Alden Weir’s The Fishing Party? Or do we treat nature as “other” as Augustus Vincent Tack’s Winter Landscape suggests—just a pretty picture of a vista that has nothing really to do with us?

Left to right: George Inness, Moonlight, Tarpon Springs, 1892; Julian Alden Weir, The Fishing Party, c. 1915; Augustus Vincent Tack, Winter Landscape, c. 1898-c. 1902

In his 1995 essay The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon suggests that “wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence represents its fall …To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles.” In other words, no relationship.

But if we look back to Self Portrait with Tree, and think eco-critically, we can see that Sam Taylor-Johnson has shown us a tree leaning with the wind and the slope of the land, yet still reaching for the sky, saying, “Yes, some limbs might be broken, but the sunlight of this sky, the rain storm that may come, will nurture me as a person and me . . . as a tree.” A symbiotic and beautiful relationship.

I have a hint now of what is in store for us in this program. Our time together, with the goal of cultivating personal resilience in the face of climate change, will provide me another way to appreciate and find relevance in our collection.

Finding New Meaning in The Soup

Museum Educator Carla Freyvogel shares how her students helped her understand Picasso’s The Soup (on view in Picasso: Painting the Blue Period) from a different perspective. 

We stand in the middle of the gallery facing Pablo Picasso’s The Soup, balancing on our left leg, the right leg extended just a bit behind us, the body weight focused on the ball of the left foot. Our arms are outstretched. We waver a bit and return to standing.

Pablo Picasso, The Soup, 1903, Oil on canvas, 15 3/16 x 18 1/8 in., Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Margaret Dunlap Crang, 1983. 83/316 © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Then, we try another pose—the pose of the grown-up in the image. This time the right foot is forward and somehow our weight is grounded evenly between our feet. But our upper backs…how to bend them so completely to mirror the head and shoulders of our subject? I ask my students to place a hand at the nape of their necks. Can you actually bend your neck to the extent this woman has? “No!” is what almost everyone says, so we talk about how Picasso exaggerated this downward curve of the neck to convey what–defeat? despair? fatigue? We talk about it.

They take their places on the floor in front of The Soup. The students are between nine and ten years old. Many of them remark on the steam coming out of the bowl, the softness of the white brushstrokes, the hints of pink that can be seen against the blue background.

“What do you think might be going on in this painting?” I ask. We have framed this tour in terms of unearthing narratives. At nine and ten, they have lots of ideas of good stories to go with each piece of artwork they see.

“Well, I think that the little girl has just given the woman a bowl of hot soup,” a girl offers from the front row.

I am shaken by this. The little girl is offering the soup? I had long assumed that the despondent woman (the mother?) was sacrificing the soup for her child, willing to go hungry herself.

“Tell me more,” I respond.

My student goes on to tell me a story based around this image. The mother was sick and tired, the girl was young and stronger, though both of them were suffering on some level. But it came time for the little girl to care for her mother and so she did, providing her warm soup while going a bit hungry herself.

Just when I think that Picasso has called in all of my compassion chips, has banged at my heart, willing me to embrace the despair and sadness of the women he observed, my student takes it to the next level. We grown-ups are not supposed to obtain compassion from our children, from the younger generation. We are supposed to be strong and willful, to be the tough ones when the going gets tough.

But what if we are not? What if life were so hard that we had to accept charity from the very person we were on this earth to protect?

Entertaining my student’s perspective makes my experience with The Soup even more meaningful and heartbreaking.

DC-area educators respond to Alma Thomas (Part II)

Alma Thomas taught art at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years. She said: “I devoted my life to children and they loved me.” To honor and connect to Thomas’s career as a teacher, we asked DC-area educators to respond to works of art in Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful . These educators participated in the Phillips’s 2021 Summer Teacher Institute, exploring ways to adapt arts-integrated lessons to their students. Read their perspectives on how they personally connected to Thomas’s artworks.

Read more responses in Part I

Alma W. Thomas, Three Wise Men, 1966, Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/2 x 23 1/2 in., The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Gratitude. Purpose. Learning. These are the three most valuable points that resonate in me when I look at this painting. The wise men are the carrier of three beautiful gifts.
Gratitude. As I wake up each day, there are so many things that I am thankful for. Foremost, is the gift of LIFE, especially during these tragic times when many people all over the world are dying.
Purpose. In 2015, I had a major car accident while I was seven weeks pregnant. Miraculously, I did not have a single bruise or cut. Since then my purpose of having a second life is making people know that there’s an omnipotent power above us. That experience led me to prioritize making great memories with my family and friends.
Learning. Knowing that this world is so vast and limitless gives us the chance to explore and learn. In this lifetime, it is important to embrace our own beauty, develop our courage, enhance our relationships, and live our life with passion.

What are you hoping to gain from the three wise men?

—Irene De Leon, Service Coordinator / Early Childhood Special Educator, Judy P. Hoyer Early Childhood Center


Alma W. Thomas, Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, 69 x 50 in., Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.04

This expressionist abstract painting about nature connects us to a feeling of calm and peacefulness. “Sparkling dew” recalls memories of walking across a dew-filled morning lawn, while “wind” associates memories of raindrops running down a window pane. Irregular dabs of blues and greens further add to the qualities of tranquility. An educator by profession, Alma Thomas developed her iconic style in the 1960s, at the age of 69. She was fascinated by her observations of shifting light in her garden. She was also influenced by Claude Monet’s paintings. In her own words, her artwork was meant to evoke “the heavens and stars.” Thomas serves as an inspiring role model, reminding us that educators who are also artists can do both, and thrive, in any stage of life.

—Eileen Cave, Grades PK-6, Visual Art & Arts Integration Lead Teacher, Rosa L. Parks Elementary School