Written by Kristina Olson
Associate Professor of Art History
WVU School of Art and Design
A reproduction can never compare to the experience of art seen in person. As a professor of art history at West Virginia University, this truism has long guided my teaching about art. It is also an essential principle of the art history program in the School of Art and Design at WVU. Under the guidance of coordinator, Dr. Janet Snyder, students in all upper-level art history courses are taken to museums in regional cities every semester so they can research works of art that they can experience directly. These important, but expensive, pilgrimages necessitate setting aside a whole day to travel by buses to such cultural destinations as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C.
Since The Art Museum of West Virginia University opened in August of 2015, students now have the easy ability to see works of art for free right here on campus in a state-of-the-art facility! Having access to the museum for two semesters has been transformative for my teaching. Our museum collection has works dating back centuries and originating from many cultures. My research and teaching focuses on the sometimes challenging art of the last 150 years and the museum’s holdings in modern and contemporary art are particularly strong. This was evident in the work on view at the inaugural exhibition, Visual Conversations: Looking and Listening. We got to see prints by Mary Cassatt, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. A survey of the drawings, prints, and paintings by our own WVU alumna and important American modernist, Blanche Lazzell, was a special treat. And it seems like the whole town has fallen in love with the lobby mural, Present Moment, created just for us by contemporary graffiti artists, How & Nosm.
I am only beginning to realize the tremendous benefit of teaching with the resources of the museum. Freshmen students in my survey of art history course have been able to go on guided tours to visit works of art in person, instead of just seeing projected images in a lecture hall or photographs in a textbook. They have written papers based on their observation of visual details witnessed in specific works on exhibit. Photographs cannot do justice to the way an artist can capture the effect of reflected sunlight on water in a painted landscape scene or the particular quality of line in an etched print.
Having a classroom right on the ground floor has allowed me to hold some of my classes in the museum. I have been able to arrange individual tours of the collection for students, even when the museum is closed to the general public. There is truly nothing as special as having private time like this with works of art. The access has been particularly beneficial for students in my Contemporary Art History class this spring. For one project, they had to select a contemporary artist whose work was on view to research. They could choose from the abstract painting by Tim McFarlane, the complex and layered print by Nicola López or the fascinating conceptual sculpture by Buzz Spector, among many other great options.
After covering the emergence of graffiti art in the 1980s in class lecture, students began researching the work of How & Nosm (twins Raoul and Davide Perré) to write about their lobby mural. Though currently not on exhibit, the museum has two more works—a painting and a print—by the artists in storage. I made arrangements for museum curator, Robert Bridges, to allow our class to visit the collection storage where he pulled the two works (with gloved hands!) out for students to examine closely. A printmaker himself, curator Bridges offered insight into the technique and imagery used in these complex works. He also helped these students, who are considering their options for professional tracks in the field of art after graduation, understand the nature of his job as caretaker of the University’s art collection and curator in charge of all the decisions involved with selecting and exhibiting art.
I have been impressed with the results of student essays this semester based on their direct engagement with art in the museum’s collection. They have made insights about technique and imagery that can only come from this close observation of real, physical objects. They are able to notice details of brushstroke, glazing, scale, and accurate color, among many other elements, that cannot be gleaned from a photograph. A good example is the print Urban Transformation #2 (2009) by Nicola López. In reproduction, the work looks like a jumbled knot of black, gray and orange lines exploding from the center of the composition. In person, students were shocked to realize that many of those lines are three-dimensional printed and collaged forms that lift off the surface as in a pop-up book. What a surprise!
I always say that students need to back their analysis of a work of art with evidence seen in the artifact itself. Following this logic, the museum is like a laboratory for these young scholars. It is exciting to see the new knowledge being generated from their direct engagement with the art available at the museum. This is truly an exciting time for the role of art in the education of students at West Virginia University.