Harry DeLorme Jr.
“It’s a Louise Nevelson!”
The excited shout came from a third-grade student as she entered a gallery at Telfair Museums, where I work, and pointed to a sculpture.
This episode, now many years in the past, still sticks with me as an art museum educator who has long sought to use art as a means of teaching virtually any subject. In the classroom, the enthusiastic student had studied the work of Nevelson, an important 20th-century sculptor who recycled cast-off objects into beautiful monochromatic sculptures. In her work there are lessons about what we throw away and what we value in our society.
That excitement and sense of wonder I’ve observed when students walk into a museum and encounter works of art is an important force to be harnessed. Art can be used not just to teach students about art history and process, but a host of subjects ranging from social studies to STEM.
Furthermore, the close observation and discussion of works of art in a gallery or classroom can build important language and critical thinking skills, and even improve social interactions. Perhaps of most relevance to our current moment, the study of art and the physical making of art can play a therapeutic role for students and schools emerging from two of the most difficult years in memory.
Many studies have demonstrated how art education enriches the educational experience of students and builds skills that are transferrable to other curriculum areas, including English Language Arts. Books are only one form of text, and like great literature, works of art may be read and interpreted.
The skills involved in reading images are important in a society that is overwhelmingly visual.
In our teaching at Telfair, we have long emphasized active participation — observation, discussion, and art making — over lecturing, incorporating methods such as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). Piloted many years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I first encountered it, VTS has been adopted by museums and schools worldwide and has even been used to train medical personnel to improve their powers of observation.
Studies have shown the benefits of VTS, from improved test scores to more equitable classrooms in which all students feel respected as they take part in facilitated discussion of images, noting evidence in the work when making observations.
STEM — a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — can also be enhanced through the integration of the arts, hence the addition of “A” to create STEAM.
Art, like science, requires imagination, visualization, and often experimentation. Several local schools have received state certification in STEM or STEAM, and others have incorporated STEAM threads or hosted STEAM nights, which are beginning to return in the wake of the pandemic. It was a joy in March 2022 to see 150 fifth-graders in the museum to attend STEAM talks by artists exhibiting in this year’s PULSE Art + Technology Festival at the Jepson Center.
The excitement was palpable, and the students treated the artists like rock stars as they asked questions about tech-based art projects, from robotic bird wings to video infinity mirrors and sound sculptures. This experience underscored for me how important it is that students have the opportunity to directly ask tech innovators how and why they do what they do to better understand the creativity that underlies technology.
Beyond its usefulness in teaching subject areas across the curriculum, art making has more relevance than ever now as it can play an important role in healing. The contemplative, creative, experimental, and problem-solving aspects of artmaking can provide opportunities for students to slow down, concentrate, defuse stress, and feel pride about their productions.
As part of Telfair’s many community outreach sessions, I’ve seen firsthand the empowering and therapeutic effect that art making can have on lives of individuals of all ages and backgrounds, from young students to seniors, veterans, stroke survivors, and the incarcerated.
All of us have experiences that we try our best to deal with, and self-expression is a powerful tool that allows us to have some control, to tell our stories, or merely to engage in the meditative experience of making marks on paper.
The Savannah area is blessed with many arts organizations with strong education programs, a school system that has incorporated arts instruction for a century, and a dedicated corps of art educators currently teaching in Savannah’s public and private schools.
We have an opportunity in the Savannah area to build on our successes of the Savannah Arts Academy and other public and private schools in our community and to help young people out of the confusing and stressful times we have been living through by giving them the opportunity to contemplate and discuss art in an environment that is non-judgmental, respects each student, and allows all the opportunity for personal expression and growth.
Harry DeLorme Jr. is director of education and senior curator at Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia.