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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2012 / 11 

Virginia Tech students, art historian to present new insights on selected works at the Taubman Museum of Art

November 7, 2012

Painting of cotton pickers working in a field.
A view of Thomas Hart Benton's, "The Cotton Pickers," tempera on masonite, circa 1943. The painting was acquired by the Taubman Museum of Art with funds provided by Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust. Image courtesy of the Taubman Museum of Art.

According to Kevin Concannon, director of Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts, research can often be a two-dimensional, hands-off endeavor for art history students, with works of art viewed and researched in books or online. 

Thanks to a partnership with the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va., Virginia Tech students are getting hands-on research experience with works of art from the museum’s collection. 

They will present their findings Thursday, Nov. 15, from 3 to 5 p.m., followed by a keynote presentation by art historian Justin Wolff at 6 p.m., who will present his insights on “The Cotton Pickers” by Thomas Hart Benton. The presentations will be held at the Taubman Museum of Art, and are free and open to the public, but space is limited, so an RSVP is requested to 540-342-5760.

The collaboration between the museum and the university is part of a capstone art history course that provides students with direct, real-world experience researching art objects in a museum collection as well as an opportunity to learn from a visiting art historian and scholar. 

“The motive for doing a class like this is that a lot of students study art history and never actually talk about real objects; they talk about images projected on the screen. Most of what we do in an academic program is read what other people have written, and sadly, in more than a few cases the people who are writing about these objects have never laid eyes on them,” said Concannon. “The primary purpose here is to teach them how to do their own research on actual works of art.”

In September, Justin Wolff, an associate professor of art history at the University of Maine, joined the class at the Taubman to study Benton’s painting and discuss his research methods. Working with Wolff, the students learned the importance of studying all aspects of an object firsthand, including examining the back of the work and other elements that cannot be fully appreciated from an image.

The students took that knowledge and applied it to pieces they selected from the museum’s collection.

After thoroughly examining their selected pieces and making their own observations, the students began conducting additional research. When possible, the students set up interviews with the artists who created the works, and in the case of deceased artists, they talked with scholars and experts. The students also combed through the museum’s files and additional scholarly literature.

The Taubman Museum of Art has been very supportive of the students’ work, meeting with them and providing access to files on the works as well as complete access to the objects themselves – even pulling paintings off of the wall to allow closer examination. Also, giving the students the opportunity to present their findings at the museum contributes a valuable experience that will benefit them in their future professional lives.

The following students are participating in the class, and each will give a brief, 10-minute presentation:

  • Kit Alderson of Clifton, Va., a senior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Amanda Blakeslee of Vinton, Va., a junior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Courtney Blandford of Oakton, Va., a senior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Meggin Hicklin of Blacksburg, Va., a senior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Jonoya Hunter of Milford, Va., a senior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Alison Kim of Washington, D.C., a graduate student studying creative technologies in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Kaitlin O'Connell of Ashburn, Va., a senior majoring in studio art in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Adam Osborne of Chesapeake, Va., a senior majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science and minoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Walker Scott of Richmond, Va., a senior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Grayson Van Beuren of Springfield, Va., a junior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Chelsea Wells of Salem, Va., a senior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies;
  • Erin Wosleger of Rockville Centre, N.Y., a senior majoring in art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

The student presentations will be followed by Wolff’s presentation on “The Cotton Pickers,” including his insights on the piece through the lenses of race and labor in America. Wolff recently published the biography “Thomas Hart Benton: A Life,” which Pulitzer Prize-winner Holland Carter reviewed for the New York Times and Publishers Weekly praised as a “comprehensive and critically astute biography” and a “lucid and engaging study of the artist's life.”

This collaborative project is being supported by the Office of the Provost at Virginia Tech. University Provost Mark McNamee said, “Virginia Tech values our partnership with the Taubman Museum of Art. The opportunity for our art history students to gain real-world research experience in a major museum is a key part for our ‘hands on – minds on’ approach to education.”

 

 

College of Architecture and Urban Studies 2012 magazine

Photos: Faculty and students install Luminous Kite Lanterns at farmers market

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