A Canvas for Creative Learning

In a wing of the Huntington Art Gallery last Friday afternoon, a group of young academics converged to discuss one of the most profound cultural phenomenons of the 21st century: the selfie. It’s hard to imagine what Henry E. Huntington would make of Instagram, Snapchat or Tumblr, but for students enrolled in San Marino High School’s honors humanities course, these new media bear an important place in the broader context of art history. 8
As part of a new year-long partner program with the Huntington, the students have been visiting the institution weekly to supplement a combined art and English honors curriculum. Each quarter will focus on a different theme, with students analyzing and critiquing related works of art and literature in the classroom, online and at the Huntington before applying those concepts to original writings and art. Their visit last week was the first of several quarterly curator-led tours — this one focusing on their foremost unit of portraiture, particularly, self-portraits.
So, for a generation for whom social media has become the ultimate means of self-expression, what separates a selfie from a self-portrait?
“I think one of the main differences is that a selfie is really easy to produce, and if you don’t like it, you can delete it and take a new one,” said one student.
“It’s more realistic when it’s painted like that, and when we take pictures we try to get good angles of ourselves,” commented another. “They’re trying to show themselves in an accurate way, while we’re trying to show ourselves in the best way possible.”
The 16 students enrolled on the course have been thinking a lot lately about how they’d like to show themselves. As they’ve examined portraiture through the art works and biographical writings of others, they’ve also been reflecting on their own image and identity, applying what they find to the composition of their own UC prompt essays and self-portraits.
“Whenever you’re working with teenagers, it’s really important to make connections to them,” said English teacher Amanda Hernandez, one of the co-instructors who developed and teaches the course. “Pieces that were created in the 1400s are not always relevant to a 17-year-old in 2015, but if you can show it in a bigger picture, like what it means to humanity and how we’re evolving and representing ourselves today, it makes it more meaningful to them. It’s fun to talk about yourself, and so if you start there and look at portraits to see what other people are saying about themselves, it’s a good way to talk about art without feeling threatened.”
During last week’s visit, guest curator Lilit Sadoyan showed the students 11 portraits from the 1400s to the 1700s, discussing the evolving styles and symbolism in each piece and encouraging students to draw connections to themselves.
“I was really thrilled at the opportunity to share the collection with them and find ways to make it relevant to their own lives and lived experiences,” said Sadoyan. “Especially in our time, where everyone is so aware of their image, I think this will bring to another level the question of what image you want to put out there as you transition from your school years into your college life and adult life, and the way you want to be perceived by others.”
When they’re not browsing the galleries at the Huntington, the students spend one day a week in class working on their essays and self-portraits. The rest of the time is spent online, working from an integrated syllabus that combines reading from a set text, conducting independent research, writing critiques and participating in discussions with their classmates. Each student is also creating a website portfolio detailing their work throughout the year.
For the tech-savvy teens, the online component of the course continues the conversations they have at the Huntington in a language and medium they can relate to. A recent assignment, for example, had students creating their own “memes” by adding humorous text to images of portraits they’d viewed at the Huntington. Additionally, the online forum emboldens shyer students to freely express thoughts and opinions they might not have felt comfortable sharing in the galleries.
“It’s really interesting, because it’s not a typical classroom setting,” said Cammy Kuo, a senior who is taking the course. “It’s more of a discussion. The teachers aren’t really teaching us everything we need to know, so we get to discover things ourselves.”
Doug Berry, San Marino High School’s assistant principal of instruction and guidance, said this was the intention of UC-accredited program from the get-go.
“There’s a lot of conversation right now in education circles about blended learning and flipped classrooms, and this course totally embraces those two concepts,” Berry said. “This was the model as the course was put together, and now, after six weeks, we’re just starting to see those things really take effect.”
Of course, even if teenagers live online, there is no substitute for experiential learning, which is why the Huntington has been such a valuable resource in bringing the students’ lessons to life.
“You can look up an artist and the title of a painting and see the piece online, but you can’t see the brush strokes, the true color, the scale, unless you’re standing in front of it,” said Michelle Pauline Bradshaw, who teaches the art portion of the course. “That’s why for me, it’s really important that they’re actually making art, because they can put themselves in that position.”
After wrapping up their portraiture unit at the end of October, the students will next shift their focus to landscape, utilizing the grounds and collections at the Huntington to fuel discussion not only about artistic landscapes, but social, economic and political ones as well. Their third unit will revolve around local artisanship and the California arts and crafts movement, with students creating their own ceramic pieces inspired by the Huntington’s Greene & Greene collection.
Having learned about classic concepts and techniques in the earlier portion of the course, the students will spend much of their final quarter focusing on contemporary American art, examining how to break the “rules” and bring more creativity into their work. At the end of the school year, all of the students’ original pieces will be showcased in a culminating exhibit at the Huntington.
“I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them and a great advantage in their learning to be at the Huntington, but they’re also doing something for us — making this stuff live, which is the whole point,” said Catherine Allgor, who directs the Huntington’s educational programs. “We’re excited because it represents another facet of our evolving relationship with our closest neighbor.”

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