By Laurie Laker ’12, photos by Jennifer Coombes
With the integration of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center into the Colorado College community, the development and support of innovative programming via CC’s Block Plan is just one of the benefits that students and community members will be able to access, learn from, and participate in for generations to come.
The First-Year Experience (FYE) class, AH112: Introduction to Art History, took full advantage of this new access. Professor Victoria Ehrlich, a second-year visiting art faculty member with her Ph.D. from Cornell University, based the class in “discussions and theories focusing on the Western canon and its critique, which which works really nicely in conjunction with the Fine Arts Center collection that has strengths in local, regional, Native American, and contemporary work.”
During Block 2, students selected from over 150 works of art from the museum’s vast collection, and curated their own exhibition that went on display in the FAC for the last two weeks of the block.
“One thing the FAC gave us was the opportunity to discuss how the canon fits into that space, how we critique and display underrepresented artists, peoples, and regions in our galleries,” adds Ehrlich.
Ehrlich grew up in small-town Texas, and focused her undergraduate education on Mediterranean Art and Archaeology at SUNY - Albany. While working as a middle school teacher in Plano, Texas, she also attended the University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree in Italian Renaissance art, before moving to upstate New York to Cornell for an additional master’s and her Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art. At Cornell, her dissertation dealt with myth and heroism, and how these stories of culture and history are displayed and represented across artworks. Currently, beyond her classroom teaching, her research focuses on Florentine imagery, primarily from the 15th century.
Embracing the conceptual nature of art was key to the success of the FYE. Students, as always at CC, were asked big questions from the very first day.
“We set out to cover a huge amount of material, both in observation and discussion,” says Ehrlich. “I try to push students to answer important, framing questions about art and why it matters. So, I’m asking them to think about what art actually is, how it informs our sense of place, our perspectives, and how works of art and artists have been categorized over time. What role does the canon plays in our understanding of art history, and – given the FAC access we have to a variety of artists and their works from outside the canon – how might it be productively modified, adjusted, and reorganized?”
Key to the exploratory nature of the class, beyond the discussions of the canon and its expansion, is the interactive and installation elements that the FAC helps facilitate for students. For the students, only some of whom had any artistic background, the curation experience was the culmination of the two blocks worth of learning. From historical and cultural information to curation processes, the students got to dive, head-first and hands-on, into the work.
“It was really interesting to work so closely with art pieces and putting what we learn in class to the test,” says Sallie Hatfield ’21, who’s always been interested in art history but never had the chance to explore it until she got to CC.
“The curating processes really opened my eyes to what goes on behind the scenes in museums. Before this class I didn't really think about what curators do, but now I see that their job is complex and fascinating; there’s so much research and thought that goes into it.”
Hatfield’s classmate, Ema Smith ’21 — who grew up in an artistic household with her artist father, as well as several art history classes in high school — feels similarly.
“I was quite surprised at the amount of work and group cohesion that goes into the curation process,” she says. “It was difficult trying to concede my aesthetic vision for the exhibit with the vision of 17 other people as well as with the group-decided theme.”
“Once we decided that, it became much easier. One of my favorite parts of the curation process was our access to the basement of the museum. Being able to go behind the scenes to see the controlled chaos of the archives was extremely fun. I loved seeing the process and the feeling that I was a part of the extensive history stored within the few square feet of the museum basement!”
Immersive learning is at the heart of a Colorado College education, and with the Fine Arts Center joining the CC family, classes, activities, and engaging learning experiences such as these are hoped to become more commonplace. Making art a tactile, interactive experience, rather than simply something to be viewed on a gallery wall — bringing it, and the work behind it, to life — that’s what a Block Plan class is all about. Exploring, immersing, enriching.