Finding Place in Art

We find meaning when we feel connected to learning. Teachers generally have an easier time introducing a topic if they can find ways to pair it with their students’ prior knowledge, and arts educators play an important role in fostering this type of learning experience for students in museums. Whether students pull from lived experiences or articles they’ve read for class to converse with a work of art, they engage in a type of learning that leaves a lasting impression.

At the Colby Museum of Art, students make these connections every day through discussions about Maine. The Maine landscape has been a source of inspiration for generations of artists, and many works in the Museum depict areas from all over the state. For visitors who have spent time in Maine or other parts of the Northeast, viewing a work that activates memories of a familiar place can create a powerful encounter. This use of placemaking finds its way into all age group programming at the Museum.

It can be seen with the earliest learners who attend the toddler Art + Storytelling program on Saturday mornings. One morning, as I lead the children through the Museum, we stop to look at Winslow Homer’s The Trapper, a painting of a man nestled in the surrounding natural landscape. The figure stands on a fallen log with a wooden paddle in hand and beside him floats his wooden canoe.

Winslow Homer, The Trapper, 1870. Oil on canvas, 19 x 29 ½ in. (48.5 x 74.9 cm). Gift of Mrs. Harold T. Pulsifer, 1949.002.

“Does this scene remind you of anywhere you’ve been? Maybe here in Maine?” I ask.

“Well, it reminds me of my camp,” one child says.

Others make similar connections to familiar places around the area, including nearby lakes, the Kennebec River, and their homes. While this painting actually depicts a serene lake and the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, it is no surprise that viewers in Maine find their own place in Homer’s work. In this way these children are building upon their prior experiences and knowledge by creating connections to their personal lives. In doing so, they are developing foundational skills of learning.

Feeling familiar with a painting is a compelling entry point for older students too. Abby Newkirk, Linde Family Foundation Senior Coordinator of School and Teacher Programs at the Museum, says that in most tours, the docents aim to incorporate discussions of Maine, such as in topics of history, landscape, and environmental issues. Newkirk explains, “I think learning about and discussing where people come from is really important to kids and leaves an impression . . . talking about it makes them feel proud of their place in Maine.”

Museum docent Nancy Tiernan leads a discussion of Town of Skowhegan with students from Skowhegan.

And that was definitely apparent when Newkirk described how most students react to Yvonne Jacquette’s Town of Skowhegan (1988): “They get so excited! They say things like ‘Wait, that’s the [Margaret Chase Smith] Bridge!’” They find specific aspects of the piece that connect to their own lives.

Rockwell Kent, Headlands and Sea, 1910. Oil on canvas, 38 x 44 in. (96.5 x 111.8 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2013.168.

Newkirk remembered another instance in which students gathered around Rockwell Kent’s Headlands and Sea, a painting of a rocky coast and crashing waves. She recalled that one student imagined seals sitting atop the cliff. This student went on to describe how he saw it as the perfect place for seals to fight. “It’s fun to see kids develop their own stories about what they see from their previous experiences,” said Newkirk. In the moments that the students combine their lived experiences in a particular landscape with the image they see represented in the painting in front of them, a magical connection is formed.

Connecting to place carries through to the college-level academic programming at the Museum. Unlike the K-8 visitors who come from local schools in Maine, Colby’s students are often temporary residents of the state, and so engaging intentionally with historical representations of the Maine landscape is a way they can build their own connections.

Miriam Valle-Mancilla, Linde Family Foundation Coordinator of Academic Access, recalled that during a session with a religious studies class this past February, the professor paired visual analysis of Maine landscapes with the course’s broader topic of displacement. Ryan Harper’s American Spirituality and the Environment class had recently read Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, and as the students viewed a Virgil Williams painting titled Mount Katahdin from the West Branch of the Penobscot, they were challenged to think about the disconnect between humans and nature.

“The class has such knowledge of the wilderness and nature, so we talked about these paintings by posing questions about how the artist connects or disconnects with their work, and the power dynamics that unfold when the artist decides where the individual is placed in the landscape of their own painting,” says Valle-Mancilla. She explained how she focused the class on paintings from the Hudson River School. Those artists often sketched on site, and then, working from those sketches, invented details of the scenes on canvases back in their studios. Engaging in conversations about displacement from nature, class members drew connections between their own experiences of Maine, Thoreau’s written accounts, and the paintings on display.

Virgil Williams, Mount Katahdin from the West Branch of the Penobscot, 1870. Oil on canvas, 26 ¼ x 40 in. (66.7 x 101.6 cm). The Lunder Collection, 001.2008.

Museums play an important role in facilitating learning experiences by connecting local communities with their local histories. The education team at the Colby Museum of Art has tapped into this power of placemaking with students of all ages. Art can help us to build upon or reshape what we already know and see in the world, helping to solidify our sense of place and self-understanding. This power cannot be understated. And while the programs outlined here are geared toward students and young learners, visitors of all ages can and should draw on their personal experiences when interacting with the art on display.