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A Community of Learners: World Literature and Visual Literacy

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2009-10

During the spring and summer of 2009, the Hood Museum of Art displayed Félix de la Concha: Private Portraits/Public Conversations, as part of the Dartmouth Centers Forum theme for the year, conflict and reconciliation. The exhibition featured portraits of fifty-one people from the Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities who had experienced conflict in their personal or professional lives and were on the journey toward reconciliation. Each portrait was created in a twohour recorded session during which the artist simultaneously painted and interviewed the sitter.The three-part portraits, consisting of painted canvas, audio, and video, were displayed in the Hood and at Baker Library.

The exhibition inspired Lebanon High School teacher Deb Springhorn to take a new approach to the final exam in her world literature course. For the exam, students used Private Portraits/Public Conversations as a model to create a portrait of a character from one of thirteen books they had read over the course of the year. Using the theme of conflict and reconciliation, students could create either a written portrait, in the form of an interview with the character, or a portrait in a visual medium.

Before visiting the exhibition, most of the students had planned to write an interview; however, after seeing the show, the majority of students, even those with little or no artistic training, opted to create a visual portrait. The results were impressive. In the portrait pictured here, student Erin Carey depicts the character Gogol from The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. In the novel, Gogol experiences conflicts between his Bengali and American heritage and also with the name that his parents gave him. Carey chose to represent Gogol in a format similar to the painted canvases Félix de la Concha created, but added the Taj Mahal and the White House to symbolize Gogol’s profession as an architect and the cultural and personal conflicts he experienced.

When asked how she could justify having students do their final exams in the form of visual art instead of a written format when the course had been so heavily text based, Springhorn responded, “The skills for interpreting art and literature such as observation, synthesis, and analysis are the same. It hits on all fronts. And when they presented the visual portraits, they had to articulate (verbally as opposed to in writing) what they knew and understood.”

Springhorn has long understood the importance of visual literacy, the ability to “read” visual images the way we read text, as an essential component of a well-rounded education. For years she has integrated the museum’s exhibitions and collections into her interdisciplinary humanities and American studies courses. In 2002 she received the Friendship Fund Award, which recognizes regional teachers for their exemplary use of the Hopkins Center and the Hood Museum of Art as educational and cultural resources to enrich educational opportunities within the school curriculum.

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