Student “Art Detectives” Investigate the Masterpieces

By Tom Haushalter

In a class on the art of the tropical rainforest, it makes sense to want to work with a lush, aqueous medium like tempera. What you may not expect a group of fifth-graders to grapple with are notions of perspective and realism in a painting—or the lack thereof.

But Susan Davis Shimko, creator of one of AVA’s newest community outreach programs, called Art Detectives, has kids looking at rainforests—and art in general—in a whole new way.

Drawing on her own experience as an educator and her love of art history, Shimko developed Art Detectives to forge stronger connections between the grade-school curriculum and ideas in art. She schedules special visits to Upper Valley elementary classrooms and discusses with each teacher beforehand what subjects the students are learning. “Then we decide on a subject that lends itself to doing something enriching with art,” she says, “and I look for an artist and a piece of their work to integrate into their learning.”

Those fifth-graders were studying the environment when Shimko arrived one day with a print of Henri Rousseau’s “The Equatorial Jungle.” A lively discussion of rainforests and their importance led to observations about Rousseau’s painting and how it was made. “The class was very interested to learn that Rousseau had never actually been to a rainforest,” she says, “but had drawn his tropical plants from sketches made at the Paris botanical gardens!”

And they learned that Rousseau had such high regard for his raw, natural talent that he never took art lessons—which shows in his paintings’ overall lack of perspective and sophistication. Then out came the tempera paints, and Shimko asked the students to create their own rainforest paintings, following Rousseau’s style.

In another class studying the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Shimko introduced a piece by painter Jacob Lawrence, known for his vivid depictions of African American life.
For another she came with Picasso’s rooster, while the students had been hatching chickens in the classroom. “To be able to connect Picasso with actual chickens makes Picasso that much more engaging.”
Shimko is just as amazed by what the children say about these works of art. “You don’t expect a first-grader to look at a painting and say, ‘This shading makes me feel sad, and I think the artist was feeling like he wanted to show sadness.’”

Adds Shimko, “I tell them that there aren’t right or wrong ways to talk about art. It’s all about their exposure and experience of it, and I hope they begin to look at museums and AVA as places they aren’t afraid to visit.”

On Friday, June 1st, they’ll get their chance to visit AVA—and to find their own art on display. Culminating Shimko’s work with 19 classrooms in five different Upper Valley schools over the past year, the Art Detectives Art Show will feature an astonishing 298 pieces of student art. Visitors can explore the work exhibited throughout the hallways of AVA Gallery.

“It’s amazing that this program has had this level of success,” says Shimko, reflecting on the past year of Art Detectives. “And I’m excited to see how much further it can blossom.”

The Opening Reception is Friday, June 1, 4-6pm. The show is on view until June 9.

Parents and caregivers who are interested in Art Detectives should contact their teachers, and interested teachers should email ArtDetectives@avagallery.org.