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

Ripe! and Secrets of the Green World

Ripe & Secrets of the Green World

AVA is delighted to share that space is still available in two very special summer art camps: Ripe! and Secrets of the Green World.

These partnership programs unite AVA with the Dartmouth College Biology Department and the Dartmouth College Computer Science Department and are funded, in part, by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

To learn more about these unique art and science offerings, please follow the links below:

Secrets of the Green World July 25-29

Ripe! August 1-5

Sunday Soup — 1st Gathering — Sunday, May 1

Sunday Soup

First Meeting: Sunday, May 1, 3:00pm

$5 in Advance; $8 at the Door

Click here to purchase your $5 admission in advance.

AVA is excited to announce that we will be hosting quarterly Sunday Soup gatherings, beginning on Sunday, May 1 at 3:00pm. Initiated and led by Randall Szott, Head Chef at The Prosper Valley School in Pomfret, VT, these playful engagements promise great food, creative community and newly funded art projects!

What is Sunday Soup*?

Sunday Soup is a grassroots model for funding small-to-medium sized creative projects through community meals. Basically, community members are invited to share in a meal of soup prepared by Szott, accompanied by Red Hen bread, for a nominal fee. The proceeds will be pooled as a grant, and at the conclusion of the gathering, will be awarded to support a developing, local art project. Artists seeking funding for their work should bring a printed, one-page description of their goal, with accompanying images, to the Sunday Soup event. All proposals will be tacked to the wall for participants to review. Every diner gets to vote. At the conclusion of the event, the proposal with the most votes receives the collected monies – no strings attached.

Why do it?

Sunday Soup is worth engaging with because it generates independent funding for the arts, sparks dialogue among local creatives, cultivates how we think about collaboration and community, and gives artists of all ages and abilities the opportunity to propose projects they might not otherwise be able to complete. For applying artists, the proposal process is more streamlined and fun than traditional grant application packages. For participating diners, the decision-making process is quick and democratic, and the outcome will reflect our local priorities. Sunday Soup is platform that gives everyone the opportunity to discuss ongoing projects with new audiences, meet new collaborators, and share ways of working.

The Summer 2016 Sunday Soup is scheduled for 3:00pm, August 7.

* Program descriptions adapted from the Sunday Soup website.

Click here to purchase your $5 admission in advance.