The other day I had the opportunity to work with a group of students from Richmond Elementary School in Richmond, Vermont. These third and fourth graders came to Fort Ticonderoga to take part in our “The Artist’s Eye: Geography, History, and Art” school program that uses works of art in “The Art of War” exhibit.
For an hour and a half, students talked about what art is and why people create art. They worked in smaller groups to discuss amongst themselves specific works of art in the exhibit and then reported the key points of their discussion to the rest of the group. They also got out onto the Ticonderoga landscape to make sketches before returning to the Mars Education Center to make a more formal drawing based on their sketches.
For the past several years teachers have had access to “Using Art to Learn about History” sheets highlighting specific artworks in the Fort Ticonderoga collection. Students can use the sheets to locate a work of art and then answer a series of open-ended questions that encourage directed looking and analysis of the painting.
However, with “The Art of War” exhibition in the Mars Education Center gallery, fifty works of art from the Fort’s collection are displayed in a central location for the first time. This exhibition makes it possible to offer an art-specific program for students that still connects to the importance of the Fort’s history and it relation to the surrounding landscape.
Working with a group of students too young to remember film photography can be a challenge; for them advances in technology aren’t going at break-neck speed—for them it’s the new normal. During a discussion of how creating art today is different than 150 years ago, the impact of technology on their daily lives became clear. When asked how we record images today, I expected the answer “digital cameras” but I hadn’t even thought about “Playstation DSIs.” Even as I asked the question, one of the teachers was at the side of the room recording components of the program on her Apple iPad!
At the core of the program is the opportunity for students, in groups of 4-6, to examine and analyze a specific artwork in the exhibit. Students looking at Thomas Davies’ “A View of the Lines at Lake George, 1759” were asked to identify things in the painting that indicated the area was still wilderness in 1759, as well as signs of human impact on the landscape. These third and fourth graders noted the forested hillsides and lack of permanent structures, but also saw that trees had been cleared for General Amherst’s camp and that at least one road had been constructed.
One group, assigned the panoramic photograph “At Fort Ticonderoga, October 4, 1910” by Seneca Ray Stoddard, were struck by the formality of the clothes everyone in this group photograph are wearing, which led to a conversation of how we dress today for outings. They also pointed out some of the challenges of taking a large group picture, noting that several people are not looking at the camera.
Before heading out onto the landscape, we reexamined “A View of the Lines at Lake George, 1759,” noting that it was painted fifteen years later, in 1774. How did Thomas Davies know what to paint in the scene? Students talked about making sketches and painting finished pieces back in the studio (and in this case, many years later). Then we went outside, where students selected a scene that interested them and made a sketch, using just a black or brown colored pencil. Many made notes on their sketches, such as “sky is light blue” or “soldier’s coat is light brown.” Students then returned to the Mars Education Center and, with a limited palette of five colors, created a more formal drawing of the scene they selected, using their sketches as a reference.
Fort Ticonderoga is fortunate to be uniquely placed to offer this exceptional program. We don’t know of another program where students can observe works of art and then literally step out the door to see the landscapes that inspired the art—and not just one painting, but a dozen or more landscapes in our collection depict the Ticonderoga peninsula.
We often don’t give students enough credit when it comes to viewing artworks or taking our own children to art museums and galleries. All too often we think “my kids would never be interested in looking at paintings.” My experience working with students and artworks over the years, however, teaches me that we just have to provide children with the appropriate tools. A few simple, open-ended questions can open up a whole new world for students and for us.
Director of Education