Monday, December 03, 2012

The Henry Art Gallery

Last week our 5's class took a field trip to the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus here in Seattle.

I'm not a real stickler for making the kids keep their bottoms on the seats. One of the things that makes riding the bus special is that there are no seatbelt, no car seats. There's a freedom to riding the bus, one that allows us to better experiment with and understand the play of motion and gravity.

We caught the bus from the Center of the Universe. It's one of the best parts of being an urban preschool, taking the bus together. Typically, when we debrief after a trip, the bus ride is so much the "favorite" part of the trip that I have to phrase the question, "Besides the bus trip, what was your favorite part?" In fact, our 3-5's class just took a field trip that was comprised exclusively of a bus trip downtown, a ride on the light rail to the Mt. Baker station where we stopped for a snack, before re-boarding for the trip back downtown where we caught the bus to Fremont. That was the whole field trip.

At the end of our tour, we returned to the studio where the Henry staff provided us with art supplies.

We'd scheduled ourselves for a tour through the Henry's education department. Our guide, Infinity, and her team took us to the studio where we all sat on stools at tables. Woodland Park kids don't sit on stools at tables! But there we were, kids eager for something new, sitting on stools.

The children, as they usually do when we head out into the world together, wanted to share lots of personal information. Infinity, having no way of knowing that we're accustomed to everyone getting their turn to respond to every question, to her enduring credit, had the patience to work her way through 16 kids with something to say . . . several times.

I often took my own preschool aged daughter Josephine to art museums, visiting the Henry several times. Residing in a space that's a marriage of new and old architecture, the place has a bit of a maze-like feel to it, which appealed to Josephine. On our first visit she raced through, buzzing from gallery to gallery. It wasn't until our third and fourth times around that she started commenting on the art, almost like she'd just realized they were something more than mere landmarks, a technique for taking in art museums that came to characterize all of our first visits: lay of the land, then look at art.

I've taken classes to museums before, but never an art museum, so I was curious to see what they had in store for us. Infinity set the stage for us, leading a brief discussion about some of the themes she wanted us to think about and some instructions about what to do with our hands, feet, and voices while moving through the museum. The plan was to then break into two groups and to, essentially, spend our time engaging with 3 pieces.

Our group started with James Turrell's Skyspace, Light Reign piece, a large architectural installation that sits in the bulls eye of the museum's outdoor courtyard. Being inside this meditative piece made us think a lot about space, and outer space in particular, with several of the children imagining that we were inside a space ship.

This was the first piece we encountered upon returning back indoors from our  visit to Skyspace: ceramic elephant lamps from Jeffery Mitchell. Those pull cords are exactly the height of a 5-year-old's eyes. Although we had already talked a lot about the importance of not touching the artwork, the temptation here was incredible, and being lamps I can imagine that it was unclear about whether or not this constituted a piece of art that fell under the "no touch" rule. I watched one hand stop a mere inches away from the pull chain -- a remarkable feat of self-control, I think. These elephants make me want to turn them off and on.

We then went back inside where we discussed Jeffery Mitchell's piece Hello! Hello! a wooden construction, featuring a pair of boxy elephants making their way up a ramp to a door installed on the wall. The children in our group felt it looked a lot like the elephants were riding a roller coaster.

We finished by taking in what most of the kids considered the highlight of our tour, video artist Pipilotti Rist's A la belle etoile, which involves projecting moving images onto a large canvas of floor, allowing the children to engage their whole bodies in the exploration of the work. We then went up to the mezzanine level from which we could view the video work from a different perspective, one that let us see more detail than we'd been able to make out while in the midst of it.

If the ceramic lamp tested our ability to avoid touching, this piece challenged our ability to keep our voices down. It was exciting to chase the images around, to discover new ones, to race to put a hand or foot here or there, engaging the piece with our full bodies. Interestingly, I'm pretty sure I'd not have walked on this floor had I been alone.

I was impressed with how Infinity guided us through the gallery, not lecturing, but rather asking open ended questions: "What's happening?" "Where's do you think that door goes?" "Where do you think we are?" And I'm even more impressed with the courage it took to walk a group of 5 year olds through a gallery of fragile artwork (most of Mitchell's pieces are ceramic), trusting the kids to follow the instruction to "point if you see something cool."

And then we returned to school on the bus, three hours later, an afternoon of contemporary art to think about, back from our visit to the rest of the world.

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Ker said...

Adults give a lot of lip service to "it's the journey, not the destination," but really, how many adults enjoy getting places as much as kids do?

Ms.Mac said...

I am also a preschool teacher and I bring my kids to the school community spaces and piazzas to show them the high schoolers art. I do get a little nervous about the possible touching...I love what the children come out with while studying the art. So many times adults under estimate 4 year olds on such topics (most topics actually) The have a more organic intuition with art and often more brillant ideas compared to than adults.