Art Critics and Metalsmiths Start Early

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“Students always have questions that I don’t expect,” said Professor Theresa Antonellis about the high school sophomores and juniors she teaches at Aliquippa High School. Since the beginning of last fall, Professor Antonellis has participated in the Humanities Ladder Program through the Stone House Center for Public Humanities. Once a week, Professor Antonellis brings college-level ideas to these high schoolers and introduces them to the humanities experience through art. With a foundation similar to the Overview of Western Art class that she teaches at SRU, Professor Antonellis is able to appreciate the similarities and differences among her students. She has found that at the university, her class of one hundred predominantly freshmen students has a very different capacity for engagement compared to the ten to twenty student classes she teaches at Aliquippa.

With the help of her student mentor, Tommy Thompson, a junior in Secondary Education and Social Studies, Professor Antonellis has been able to teach ancient art history and transition to more contemporary artworks this semester. After reviewing new art history terms that students could apply to these artworks, the students dove into the history of presidents, all the way back to George Washington. Professor Antonellis then introduced the portraits of the Obamas, which were unveiled on February 12th. These portraits, pictured above, made history for featuring the first African-American presidential couple. The Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery also made history for comissioning the first African-American painters to complete these presidential portraits. After seeing the portraits and learning that Kehinde Wiley painted Barack Obama and Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama, the students’ first question shocked Professor Antonellis and Thompson: “Who paid for these portraits, and how much do they cost?” Though she didn’t know the answers at the time, Professor Antonellis returned the following week to share that private donors and philanthropists had sponsored these portraits.

A few classrooms down, Professor Sean Macmillian and his student mentor, Marie Ellis, a senior English Education major with a minor in Dance, are implementing an art appreciation class through the Humanities Ladder Program, as well. Professor Macmillan, who typically teaches metalsmithing and three-dimensional workshops at the university, is excited to be able to present art and artists that he typically doesn’t at the university. His goal is to introduce his two classes of fifteen students to art and artists that they are unfamiliar with. By taking familiar images like American Gothic and the Mona Lisa, the students were able to begin breaking down images into their fundamental designs and principles, opposed to just seeing the “pretty” aspects of the artworks. As their conversations steer towards context, students will soon be able to explore what the artists were trying to communicate in each piece.

One of the largest challenges Professor Macmillan has found is that these forty-three minute high school classes fly by significantly faster than his typical three-hour long workshops! With the time constraint, the students have been discussing artworks, and only recently began creating their own. Until recently, since metalsmithing is such a slow and deliberate process, Professor Macmillan had been taking more of a theoretical approach, using design elements and principles as a vehicle to talk about art beyond “I like it.”  He began this semester by facilitating “creativity generation exercises” to challenge students who shy away from art by claiming not to be creative enough. “Creativity is a skill,” Professor Macmillan explained, “as such, it can be learned and amplified, not only for visual arts, but also for writing stories, musical compositions, or research projects in the science fields.” On March 23rd, Professor Macmillan demonstrated moving metal with hammers and little chisels, called Chasing and Repousee, and students were able to try it for themselves. Hmmm… wonder what they’ll create next week!

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