Art + Storytelling at the Colby College Museum of Art

Stories help us to make meaning of our lives and the world around us. They relate our experiences to a broad cultural and emotional landscape. In teaching us to ask questions and to make connections, stories nourish empathy.

Stories live in the Colby College Museum of Art. Just as there are countless stories in each work of art, each visitor stitches a unique narrative into the story of the Museum. These encounters activate the aphorism that frames the entrance to the Colby Museum:

THE MUSEUM IS A SCHOOL.

THE ARTIST LEARNS TO COMMUNICATE.

THE PUBLIC LEARNS TO MAKE CONNECTIONS.

Luis Camnitzer’s The Museum Is a School (2011) is a site-specific work of art gifted in honor of the staff of the Colby College Museum of Art by Seth A. Thayer Jr. ’89 and Gregory N. Tinder. The work is compelling for the questions it raises: Is it a vision, a story, a claim, or a manifesto? Is it an invitation?

Should you visit the Museum on select Saturdays, you may stumble upon a group of toddlers stretched out on a “magic” blanket in the galleries. If you do, I invite you to listen in. These toddlers will share insights into the works on display that may teach you to see art in new ways. It is not the magic of the blanket, but the magic of Art + Storytelling.

Education interns Caroline Webb ’19 and Jake Abbe-Schneider ’19 read Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal to participants.

The Colby Museum facilitates learning experiences for toddlers through its biweekly Saturday family program Art + Storytelling. Centered around a monthly theme, Art + Storytelling guides young children through close-looking encounters with art in the galleries. Participants also hear a story read aloud and share a snack while engaging their creativity in the Mirken Education Center with a related art project.

While interning under the guidance of Margaret Aiken and Lauren Lessing in the Museum’s Education Department, Clare Murray ’18 imagined the potential for a family program that could connect children to art and stories in the Museum. With the support of the Museum, Clare was able to realize this vision. She recently reflected on these initial stages of the program:

The Museum, the staff, the space . . . together they build a foundation upon which the concept of community knows no bounds. I saw “community” blossom in more ways than one while interning there . . . I saw it within the Museum community and the greater Waterville community. And, of course, I saw it within those of us who showed up to the Museum every other Saturday at 11:00 a.m. to go on an adventure through the Museum galleries.

Since then, the Art + Storytelling family has grown and transformed. While Clare has since graduated, it has been my pleasure to facilitate these programs along with my fellow education interns Jake Abbe-Schneider ’19, James Kim ’21, and Olivia O’Neill ’19. I have come to see the ways in which perception, imagination, and creativity are central to reading art and stories, at once helping children to make connections and build confidence.

Anna O’Keefe has been bringing her daughter Clara, now four years old, to Art + Storytelling for the past two years. When I asked her to reflect on her prolonged engagement with the program, she said: “Art is an opportunity for Clara to be unabashedly proud of herself, and to get lost in her own mind and abilities. She especially loves explaining how she created the artwork, rather than just focusing on the subject.”

On Saturday, February 23, Art + Storytelling was centered around the theme Filled with Feelings. We first gathered in the William D. Adams Gallery to learn museum “etiquette” (like learning why we can’t touch the art). We then entered the galleries to explore the guiding theme; for Filled with Feelings, we looked closely at Winslow Homer’s Noon Recess (1873) and Seven People (1975) by Alex Katz. For each work of art, we used the content and context of the piece to understand what emotions the subjects were experiencing. Learning to interpret, “read,” and immerse in a work of art requires questions: What am I seeing? How does this make me feel? What does this remind me of? What story does this work of art communicate?

Alex Katz, Seven People, 1975. Oil on aluminum, 55 x 146 in. (139.7 x 370.84 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.097.

A pedagogical method frequently employed in art museums, Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) promotes question-based inquiry into a work of art without any outside information. Our guiding questions are influenced by VTS in that they are collaborative, engaging, and community building. By harnessing the generative potential of inquiry, participants and facilitators alike can begin to form a lexicon for learning with art. The young participants confidently mesh perception and imagination to vivify the works of art, and their responses are often insightful and surprising. Anna has been able to observe how impactful these experiences within the Museum can be. “I think Clara has a better understanding that art is meant to be discussed and interpreted than she would have had without A+S,” she told me.

When looking at Katz’s Seven People, one child shared a rather perspicacious reading of the story behind the painted aluminum figures: “Maybe they are pouting because they are alone and sad because they can’t see their families. Maybe they miss them.”

Through object-centered dialogue, participants work together to find and interpret meanings by sharing observations and deeply listening to one another’s insights. But co-constructive interpretation can and should be extended to all visitors, regardless of age or prior experience learning with art. Though everyone can certainly find personal meaning in art through contemplation, the Museum offers the chance to form links with others whose interpretations may be different than our own.

Art and stories invite us to relate self and other: they ask us to listen, validate, humanize, and empathize. By listening to another’s story or learning to see through another’s perspective, we grow communities grounded in compassion and creativity.

Education intern Jake Abbe-Schneider ’19 leads children through visual thinking exercises in the Davis Gallery.