CHADRON – How do you get freshmen college students to think of art as something more than a framed image in a museum or a colorful illustration on the wall of their room?
In an essay published April 12 by “Streetlight Magazine”, an online literary journal, Chadron State College Associate Professor and Social Work Program Director Rich Kenney Jr. shares an answer to that question that he hit upon while attending the CSC faculty art show, Time Lapse, in 2017.
The essay, “Bring Them to an Art Show: On Teaching Imaginative Writing,” opens with a question that occurred to Kenney as he was viewing the show: If a piece of artwork could express itself in words, what would it say?
For Kenney, who has had essays and poetry published in other literary and academic journals, giving form to thoughts about art might seem natural, but he decided to see how students in his First Year Inquiry course would respond.
The course, Matters of Opinion, is designed to help students develop critical and creative writing skills.
“I wondered, what essays and stories would Time Lapse tell them,” Kenney said.
Not without trepidation about the response, Kenney took the class to the Memorial Hall gallery to view works by Dewayne Gimeson, Laura Bentz, Daniel Binkard, Trudy Denham, Mary Donahue, Carly Heath, and Sarah Polak.
“There were whispers and wisecracks when I assembled my class of 25 students in the lobby,” Kenney writes in his essay. “Scattered frowns and looks of indifference … had me second guessing what I originally thought was an enterprising plan.”
The misgivings disappeared, however, as the students began interacting with the artwork, and voicing their thoughts.
“Black and White Crease,” a painting by Gimeson of a crumpled piece of paper, inspired one student to comment: “I think if this painting could talk, it would say everyone is like crinkled paper. No one is without flaws. We’re a lot more alike than different.”
Another student said, “The artist believes that the creased and crinkled paper still has value. That goes for people too … No matter how someone looks, they too have value.”
Other works likewise inspired thoughtful comments and writing from the students, who were asked to focus on a single work in the show and write why it caught their attention, what the artist believes in and why, and what the piece would say in words.
“What this piece would say is that I believe there is too much man-made interference in our lives. We all have to take a step back and enjoy what we are given; we need to take a deep breath,” a student wrote about the photograph, “Toadstool,” taken by Bentz.
Donahue’s painting, “Nebraska Pine Ridges: Beaver Wall,” elicited this response from one student: “I believe in the unity of sky, land and rocks. On a canvas the three become as one and they make something beautiful. Earth.”
Kenney was captivated by the responses.
“I was impressed with the creative responses the students came up with,” he said. “They were reflective and profound. It was nice to see them lose themselves in the moment. The only cell phones I saw were ones used to take pictures of the various pieces.”
Getting students to think creatively about art and helping them put their thoughts into words, is an important educational experience, according to Kenney.
“Of course, imaginative writing goes well beyond expos and galleries. Life and everything around us is an art show,” he said.