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Out of the classroom, into the studio: Mellon Foundation grant supports IU course on how art is made

It's March in Bloomington, Indiana, but even the newly budding spring flowers seem to wilt a little under an unseasonably blazing sun.


IU Assistant Professor Althea Murphy-Price discusses printmaking with students during "Museum Studies: Artists' Materials and Techniques," a new IU course funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Print-Quality Photo

Inside a cool, airy room in Indiana University's Arts Annex building, a group of 25 students clusters around Kristin Martincic to learn about lithography and the process for etching patterns into wood.

"Intaglio means 'below the surface,'" the visiting assistant professor tells the class, presenting a piece of plywood as she sets to work gouging out pieces of the wood with a small, handheld utensil. "Any areas where I'm removing the wood are areas that will not print."

The students -- whose majors include studio art, art history, journalism, history, art education and Near Eastern languages and cultures, among several others -- lean forward for a better view, some taking notes, others nodding enthusiastically when Martincic tells them where to find the best tools for making shapes in the wood.

Choreographer of the arts

Looking on much like a choreographer watching a ballet come together on stage is Issa Lampe, who was hired as a senior academic officer to create the team-taught "Museum Studies: Artists' Materials and Techniques."

The class is one of several courses and programs made possible by a $500,000, three-year grant to the IU Art Museum from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in early 2009. The grant also supported the hiring of a three-quarters time interdisciplinary programs coordinator, a role that is being fulfilled by Natasha Ritsma, a doctoral candidate in American studies in the Department of Communication and Culture.

"Artists' Materials and Techniques" is open to both graduate and undergraduate students from a range of majors. For one week at a time, the students learn about a different artistic technique or material, with lessons taught by curators, scholars and conservators, and lectures and demonstrations by artists.

Students in the course's inaugural spring semester learned about works made from a variety of materials that included everything from stone to metal. One week was dedicated to works on paper, graphite, chalk, pastel and charcoal, while another focused on oil painting as well as tempera, fresco and acrylic. Works of printmaking, photography and digital media were also covered.

Lampe received her master's and doctoral degrees in art history from Harvard University, where she spent a year working in the Harvard Art Museum, followed directly by two years as an assistant professor of art history at American University in Washington, D.C.

"I discovered that what I liked most about teaching was teaching in actual galleries, based on original works of art," Lampe said. After she was hired to create the course and other art-based programs and events at IU, Lampe learned that the IU Art Museum's curators and director had long wanted to create a course based on the original works in the museum.

"When I came, my first job was to design a course," she said. "All I had was a title and a group of curators who were willing to contribute."

Last fall, Lampe reached out to artists in the campus and Bloomington communities, arranging a course syllabus based upon a wealth of expertise. "The overall goal of the class is to teach people how art is made, whether they're art historians or coming from any other field," she said.

The IU Department of Art History will make the course a permanent part of its curriculum. "They said it definitely fills a need for their department because they don't usually talk about how art is made and they feel like their undergraduates are getting a lot out of it," Lampe said.

Powers of description elevated

For each week of the class, the students first learned about a style of making art and then visited the studio of an artist who does similar work, usually a member of the studio art faculty at IU, who can demonstrate and discuss how they work with the material.

When the students learned about stone, they first heard from local limestone artist Amy Brier, followed by a class session that was divided between Abhijit Basu from the Department of Geology and Julie Van Voorhis, a faculty member from the Department of Art History, who taught her portion of the class in the museum's gallery of Roman portrait statuary. Basu presented a more practical interpretation of the material. "He gave us the breakdown of scientific differences between limestone and marble and taught us what makes those materials different to work with," Lampe said, adding that Basu had joked that "it's all rock" to him.

Requirements for undergraduate and graduate students in the class differed slightly. Undergraduates were asked to find five works of art on campus and write a short paper analyzing how they believe the work was made. "Sometimes that's simple, and sometimes it's not so simple," Lampe said. "All of their powers of description became better."

In addition to the "Artists' Materials and Techniques" class, which Lampe will continue to refine and enhance each year, she will work with Ritsma on interdisciplinary events that will engage undergraduate students in the creation of events that will take place at the IU Art Museum. The events will connect to next year's Themester, a themed semester from the College of Arts and Sciences that next fall will focus on topics of sustainability.

In addition, Lampe will spend time this summer finalizing plans for an educational evening gallery program for IU MBA students, and will create a curriculum-structured gallery program related to sustainability that ties in with Themester 2010. Docents will be trained for the gallery program, and professors of Themester-related courses will be encouraged to have one of their class sessions at the museum.

"The collection at the IU Art Museum is really just so stunning," said Lampe. "As a teaching collection, it is clearly one of the top collections in the country. It's inspiring."

This story was originally published June 3, 2010.