Skeleton Key

Deerfield Magazine Winter 2013

By Jenny Hall / Photographs by Brent M. Hale

SkeletonKeyTwo skeletons on a white sheet—a cat and a turkey—are highlighted by clip lamps in the middle of David Dickinson’s classroom. Eight students surround the faintly macabre centerpiece with pastels, charcoal, and erasers spread out around their workstations. A bank of windows allows some natural light into the basement room, and a CD plays softly in the background. Every available wall surface is covered with sketches and watercolors. The students—mostly juniors and seniors—focus their attention between paper and bone; they’re silent, completely engrossed in capturing the shapes of the skeletons in charcoal. “Mr. D,” unobtrusive yet omnipresent in the room, moves about in the background, mixing paint and washing brushes, and stopping at regular intervals beside each student to make an observation, suggestion, or offer encouragement.

Despite the fact this is Advanced Placement Studio Art, for many in the room, this class, preceded by an introductory one, is their first—and perhaps only—brush with the visual arts in their educational careers thus far, according to Dickinson.

“A surprising number of our students come in, sadly, having had no art classes in grade school,” he says. “And they’ve grown up using computers and cell phones. They’re focused on keypads. Asking them to pick up a pencil and draw is completely foreign to many kids; it’s like a request from the dinosaur age, and they’re being asked to pick up a stick and draw in the sand. It’s that remote to them.”

But even in this technology-filled age, or perhaps because of it, the “foreignness” of art class doesn’t preclude its worth. In fact, the visual arts open multiple doors.

Head of School Margarita Curtis’ office is a short walk down the hall in the Main School Building from a large campus landscape painted by Dickinson, which hangs over the fireplace in the foyer. It features “the hills” Mr. Boyden so frequently extolled his boys to appreciate, and Curtis eyes it thoughtfully before she says, “I believe the visual arts are essential to the development of our students’ imaginations and creativity, their ability to observe closely, to analyze, synthesize, and create new options and possibilities.” She smiles and adds, “In addition to the fact they’re a wonderful creative outlet for many students.” 

Experts across the field of education echo Curtis’ beliefs, including Judith Burton of Columbia University, who conducted a groundbreaking study in which she asserted that a vibrant arts program is crucial to students’ development. 

“The arts enhance the process of learning,” wrote Burton. “The systems they nourish (integrated sensory, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities) are the driving forces behind all other learning.” And many educators also extoll those non-academic, often less easily assessed benefits, such as self-esteem, motivation, aesthetic awareness, cultural exposure, creativity, improved emotional expression, social harmony, and an appreciation of diversity.

Back in Studio Art, Dickinson agrees with all that but begins with slightly less lofty goals—he says it is important to lay a foundation in the basics, and he advocates teaching drawing as science, a kind of crash course in the grammar of visual art.

“Just as you wouldn’t try to write a book without a basic knowledge of grammar or sentence structure, you don’t expect students to jump into drawing without having laid a foundation for learning, for seeing, and for translating what they observe into something tangible,” he explains. “First you want them to be visually literate. I tell them the pencil is the extension of the brain. It makes visible what they see, something that is immediately tangible.” 

Then Dickinson’s mustached face breaks into a grin: “I want them to learn the joys of drawing before it’s too late!” he says. “Turn their two-dimensional existence into something with depth . . . ”

Sometimes an art class has an immediate effect on a student—providing them with an opportunity to slow down and turn their thoughts inward. Senior Marina Hansen comments, “(For me) art represents getting away, escaping, de-stressing . . . and then there’s the sense of satisfaction when I finish a piece. The process is just so calming—I love interpreting what I see in creative ways.” Or as Chloe So, a sophomore from Hong Kong whose art experience at Deerfield is her first, explains: The focus required by learning to draw accurately has refined her powers of observation, increased her perspective, and helped her in classes she wouldn’t have imagined. “I’m learning to look at things differently in all my classes, including math and science,” she says. “I’ve realized that a lot in visual arts is like solving a puzzle… that helps me in other classes, too.” 

Sometimes the outcome isn’t as immediate or direct, but it can be significant, nevertheless. 

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Yao Yao Kelly ’06 took full advantage of Deerfield’s visual arts classes, but didn’t pursue the arts in college; she went on to earn a degree in International Relations from Tufts. However, after internships at JP Morgan and NBC, all that was clear to her was that she “wasn’t going to be happy as a cog in a mega corporation.” Thinking back to her art classes, Kelly realized that they marked some of her happiest hours at Deerfield, and after some soul searching, she decided to follow her heart. Nowadays Kelly isn’t delivering the news or parlaying funds but she is working as a product development manager in Tiffany and Company’s jewelry division while pursuing an advanced degree at the Gemology Institute in New York.

“I wanted something I was passionate about,” Kelly says. “At Deerfield I developed the fundamental tools and skills of an artist. I gained confidence.”

Like Kelly’s Deerfield student self, current senior Wyatt Sharpe isn’t planning on a career in the arts either, but he is quick to say that studying them has deepened his understanding across the academic board; art even came into play over the summer, when Sharpe was working toward becoming an emergency medical technician. 

“Drawing forces you to deconstruct a whole into its parts in order to see how they are constructed, and then build them back up again. When I was earning my EMT certification, I realized how much sketching nudes helped me to learn anatomy; drawing the human body gave me a familiarity with it that I don’t think I could have gotten any other way. You get a sense of weight and heft. You learn to step back and observe. The more angles you look at something from, the better you understand it.”

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Recently Sharpe has become even more familiar with seeking out multiple angles—but he’s not drawing anything this time around. Wyatt proudly displays his finite element computer models—bright primary colors morph into subtle shades—illustrating trauma, and corollaries, and etiology—decidedly inartistic topics in his Biomedical Research class—but Sharpe is able to demonstrate a parallel: “Drawing, in its most reduced form, is problem solving; scientific research, in its most reduced form, is problem solving.”  This past fall, Wyatt’s dedication, in front of both easel and monitor, paid off when the Biomedical Research paper he helped to author was accepted for publication by the Journal of  Forensic Sciences.

Margarita Curtis was pleased but not surprised. She points out that in addition to the “3Rs” that have served as the foundation of education for centuries, the need for qualities developed by studying the arts, might be called the “essential Cs”—critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills—and is thrilled that Wyatt has successfully employed all of them. He, in turn, sums it up this way: “I do art because I like to make things with my hands. I’m also interested in engineering, biology, and medicine. I believe that the problems in these fields require as much creativity as they do practical knowledge to solve.”

Within the labyrinth of art studios that tunnel through the basement of the Memorial Building, the rigor and depth of the department’s approach is abundantly clear, and although students are required to take two terms of visual arts, many extend their experience through co-curriculars, additional advanced placement classes, or tutorials—it doesn’t hurt that most faculty members within the department are teachers and practicing artists—they provide inspiration inside and outside of the classroom. 

Tim Trelease is equally comfortable with a paintbrush, camera, or digital recorder in his hand, but when spring term begins, he and history teacher Joe Lyons will embark on new territory as they combine their expertise to co-teach a class on documentaries; the course will examine the history of the genre in addition to hands-on learning. 

Senior Travers Nisbet is already at work on a film about 9/11, inspired in part by a history class in which students discussed the link between memory and healing; his film will be part of a festival also in the works for spring. Fellow senior Mac McDonald has already completed a portfolio in Trelease’s Advanced Placement Photography class, which juxtaposes imagery of Cambodia against nearby Turners Falls in an exploration of wealth and cultural assumptions. 

“As our culture relies ever more heavily on photographs and social media as a means of receiving information, it’s important for young people to have the ability to contribute to the ongoing discourse and decipher what they see,” says Trelease. “The ability to think about global issues in a socially conscious way and use art to raise awareness and explore political and social issues is precisely the kind of visual literacy and creativity we’re striving for.”

Trelease and his colleagues not only want their students to observe the beauty in the world, they want them to be able to analyze it—to see beneath surface appearances. This is evident in Trelease’s advanced placement photography class. Students present projects based on the theme “unconventional beauty.” They compose triptychs and diptychs from photographs taken on a fieldtrip that are striking—juxtaposing man-made, industrial landscapes with images of the natural world. Students present their projects individually, then work as a team to deconstruct, critique, and refine the images—pushing beyond cement and rusted metal and decay to recognize subtle colors, graceful arcs, and rebirth among ashes.   

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Many Deerfield students also cite a deepened understanding of the social, cultural, and political contexts in their traditional history classes as a direct result of art history classes. 

“Art history gives students a sense of context for history, for culture, and informs their knowledge in many other disciplines. Sometimes it dovetails with their class on European history, a particularly nice overlap,” says Lydia Hemphill, who teaches Advanced Placement Art History. “Art is so important as a complement to other disciplines—it often provides a contemplative aspect that kids might not feel in other classes.” 

A longtime member of the Fine Arts Department team, Robert Moorhead is serving as chair of the department this year. Moorhead arrived at Deerfield during what might be described as the Academy’s arts renaissance. “When Deerfield was founded in 1797, the original curriculum included neither the visual nor performing arts,” Moorhead says. “It wasn’t until 1969, when the school recruited Dan Hodermarsky to spearhead an art program, that the Fine Arts—which encompassed both the visual and performing—became official classes,” he explains. These days there are nine fulltime teachers in the Visual and Performing Arts Department, several part-time instructors, and specialists who assist on an as-needed basis. Margarita Curtis would like to see an even greater emphasis on the arts curriculum. She says that as Deerfield considers the skills and dispositions students will need to thrive in the years ahead, it is clear that the left-brain functions that were prized in the marketplace of the past century will no longer suffice.  

However a past or current Deerfield student chooses to integrate art into his or her life, it is bound to stretch the perimeters of how they look at and interact with the world. Jeff Hoerle ’86, took what might be considered the opposite path from alumna Yao Yao Kelly. Hoerle loves to paint but his day job is managing Stone Run Capitol, an investment firm he founded a few years ago. In front of his easel or behind his desk, he can see a direct correlation between the skills required in art and finance. 

One of Hoerle’s recent paintings, “Sandy Approaches,” depicts a landscape lit by an eerily pastel sky, trees tumbling in the wind. He likens the energy and volatility of the storm to the uncertainty of the economy. The analytic skills, the ability to step back from the large picture, then zoom in to the details again and interpret what he sees, he says, are precisely the same whether he’s painting or analyzing the future performance of a potential investment. 

“When I’m looking at a business to invest in, I recognize up front that the market is fraught with risk—like a hurricane, if you will. So I look at what one company has as opposed to another that will make it successful even through fluctuations. I ask myself, ‘What is it about this business that will do well, even if the economy tanks?’ The ability to visualize, imagine, and interpret is the same.” 

 Margarita Curtis concurs. “It is becoming quite clear that the growth of the economy and the success of our students in a technologically-driven, globally connected world will depend to a much greater degree on their ability to innovate, to come up with novel ideas, practices, and services that address real-world problems or challenges. The focus will shift from ‘what is’ to ‘what can be.”

Back in David Dickinson’s classroom, Chloe So is absorbed in getting the femur of her cat skeleton exactly right—she’s focused on the work directly in front of her, and isn’t thinking about “what can be” at the moment. She’s got a chem test next period, and immersing herself in her art helps alleviate the jitters as she works out this particular puzzle. There will be different puzzles to solve on the chemistry test, but Chloe holds the key to answering those, too.  ••