Learning Art at the Ogden
About 50 Maggiore Elementary school children sit on the atrium floor of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art studying images of misshapen houses constructed of painted wood and found objects. For most, this field trip on an overcast winter’s day is their first time in an art museum. Their sponsors have spent many hours and a good deal of cash ensuring the experience will be a memorable one.
For starters, these 7- and 9-year-olds are learning the basics of art appreciation by looking at their own work. The collages they have come to see were constructed by them at Maggiore in Kenner under the direction of artist-in-residence Natalie Keller Barnes. Barnes was sent to the school for three weeks courtesy of state grants coordinated by the Ogden.
Maggiore students spent several days constructing the art pieces during a period usually reserved for physical education. Now they are seeing the installation in its entirety in the art institution that has the most comprehensive collection of American Southern art in the world.
Opened on Camp Street in 2003, the Ogden’s mission is to broaden awareness of the arts and culture of the American South with its permanent collection, changing exhibits and education programs. Named for its benefactor, philanthropist Roger H. Ogden, it’s a “museum without walls,” staffers say, because it educates in traditional and non-traditional ways.
Placing local artists in public schools is one of the non-traditional ways that the Ogden carries out its mission. Of the 6,500 students who have toured the museum in the past two years, the Maggiore students are some of the lucky ones who have benefitted from the museum’s community outreach programs.
On this tour, they see their artwork as soon as they enter the glass-fronted foyer. They file past the Ogden’s floating staircase without much notice. No staircase, no matter how special, would likely hold these students’ attention when their own creations lay just ahead.
“Did you know it would be like this?” asks Kate Barron, the Ogden’s education coordinator.
“No!” the students shout in chorus.
The 2nd and 4th grade classes are viewing the houses and cardboard flowers they made during separate classes at school. Grouped together, they make a three-dimensional street scene of homes and gardens in bloom. Flowers, shrubs and creatures of the soil are nurtured by a many-rayed sun. The children’s floppy-roofed houses are dotted with bottle caps, milk carton tops and other kinds of street debris assembled into artful shapes and cemented in resin.
The Maggiore school art project is one of several sponsored by the Ogden’s Artists and Sense of Place program, which matches artists in the museum’s collection with public schools. In the 2008-’09 academic year, the Ogden is coordinating five state-supported artist-in-residence programs, two in Orleans Parish schools and three in Jefferson Parish schools. The students’ art lessons culminate in a trip to the Ogden for a tour and to see their own work on display.
The program’s goals include teaching students about art, encouraging them to create art and connecting them socially and culturally to their local environments.
In the fall, for example, artist Gina Phillips worked with about 100 students from Lincoln Elementary School, located in an area in Marrero known as Walkertown. The students created eight collaborative murals depicting scenes from their neighborhood. When they saw their work on display at the Ogden in November, they also learned about the history of their neighborhood from Diane Coleman, a fifth-generation descendant of Corinne Walker, Walkertown’s namesake. Coleman explained how Walkertown developed after Walker bought a plot of land near the Ames Plantation in 1920. Other African-Americans also bought land and a close-knit community developed.
At Maggiore, Barnes asked students to create images of their Kenner neighborhood. She also asked them to bring discarded objects they found on the street to decorate their houses. For her part, she rummaged through dumpsters to find cardboard to make flowers. Unknown to the students, one of her goals was to teach them about the value of recycling.
“If you see trash,” she says, “it doesn’t have to end up in a landfill. It could spend a lifetime in a museum.”
Once students involved in the artist-in-residency programs experience the creative process, they tour the museum where Barron teaches them how to understand other artists’ work. For the Maggiore students, Barron’s first stop is a piece called “Sunship (for John Coltrane),” created with acrylic and mirrors on canvas by Kendall Shaw.
The work is a large, three-tiered collage of square and diamond shapes painted with repeated patterns. It’s an abstract celebration of Coltrane’s music.
“Is this a sculpture or a painting?” Barron asks.
Barron says nothing. Well trained in adult-speak, they know silence means they have given the wrong answer.
She explains that a painting is “painted on something” while a sculpture is “made from something.” She follows with a test. She points to a nearby piece of cut glass. “Is that sculpture?”
Mission accomplished, she moves on to the meanings of “abstract” and “collage.” She shows them other works, and by the time the group reaches a life-sized tree made from hundreds of photographs of trees, the children know exactly what it is.
The final stop is the Benny and George Andrews exhibit, a father and son grouping that juxtaposes the work of Benny Andrews, the artistically trained son, and his untrained father. George Andrews is called the “Dot Man” because he painted dots on objects such as shoes, glass jars and ceramic pigs.
“What did he paint?” Barron asks.
Quick learners, these artists of the future.