In Conversation with Art -- Deep Ekphrasis at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art

The Artsmith Peer Review Panel has been hard at work reading applications for our 2018 Artist Residency. As we eagerly await their review, here's a little art distraction from my Advanced Composition class at Skagit Valley College. This morning, the staff at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art opened the doors two hours early and allowed our class to visit a stunning exhibit of First Nations artists from the Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska coasts, ranging from Coastal Salish to Northwest Coast Indian to Inuit traditions. The exhibit, Emergence, showcases the works of recent generations while honoring the legacy of their mentors.

Emerging Frog by Rande Cook

After spending time with the exhibits, students then selected a piece whose properties spoke to them in certain ways. Students then did quick sketches to better familiarize themselves and spend time in contemplative, close observation.

Thunderbird Portrait Mask by Art Thompson

Students then did a freewrite, asking the essence of the piece any questions that came to them. Questions ranged from "Raven, why do you have a broken beak?" to "Turtle, why do you hide in your shell?" to "Wild Woman, why are you so scary?"

Tumbling Walrus by Kananginak Pootoogook

Students riffed on their questions, digging deeper, exploring the mystery and enigma of the personae they perceived, and allowed their curiosity to guide their inquiry into these works from cultures that are primarily foreign to them, even though the students themselves represent a wide range of ethnic and cultural diversity.

Moon Sitting on Water for Four Days by Tim Paul

After plumbing the depths with their probing questions, the students answered the questions--not attempting to speak on behalf of the works they'd admired, but as though someone had asked them the questions. I won't share their answers, but how would you answer the questions....

Why do you hide in your shell?
Why is your beak broken?
Why are you so scary?
Why do I fall into silence in your presence?
What are you trying to tell me?

Salmon Rattles by Shawn Karpes

Or try this with a piece of artwork that inspires you. Instead of doing ekphrasis that simply responds to the work, allow yourself to enter into a deeper, more profound conversation--one that delves into fundamental questions about the piece, and therefore yourself.

If you teach, maybe you'd like to try this with your students. The most reluctant may have much to say in a non-threatening conversation with a work of art.

Special thanks to Karen, Laura, and the staff of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art for hosting our class, and a big thank you, also, to the anonymous individuals who generously loaned their collection for this extraordinary exhibit. If you'll be anywhere near Friday Harbor between now and September 4, 2017, I urge you to visit the museum. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these privately held works. Better yet, attend artist and Kwakwaka’wak chief, Rande Cook's presentation, "Art as a Voice," 1-2:30 pm on July 12, 2017 at Brickworks (150 Nichols Street, Friday Harbor, WA).

Moon by Rande Cook


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