Kicking off the fourth year of a special humanities seminar course, around 60 juniors and seniors from San Marino High School fully immersed themselves at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and Caltech on Thursday, August 22 to gain deeper insight into the process of writing and research.
“There was unprecedented interest this year, which means it has gained momentum,” SMHS Assistant Principal of Curriculum, Instruction and Guidance Dr. Soomin Chao told The Tribune.
The blended interdisciplinary course is comprised of two groups who parted ways to explore both locations. One group visited Caltech and met with Caltech undergrads participating in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program. The experience was geared toward showing them how research is conducted, according to Chao.
“They’ll get their first glimpse at some of the potential that they’ll be able to see in themselves,” said Chao. “As the year progresses, students will be able to work with undergraduate advisers as well as professors.”
As the course goes on, the students will be working with four professors at Caltech to explore research areas such as material sciences, computer science and mathematics, among others.
The other group of students traveled to The Huntington’s Thornton Portrait Gallery. The low-lit gallery is home to grand life-size portraits of people, notable sculptures and the ongoing renovation of Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.
Led by English teacher Kellie Redmond and art teacher Michelle Pauline, the group will tour different parts of The Huntington each visit. This quarter involves portraiture, the next will involve arts and crafts with a focus on the human hand, the third will involve landscapes and activist pieces and the fourth will involving breaking the rules of art, according to Redmond.
“We kind of ask them to look at what is art at the beginning of the year and then we come back to that question,” said Redmond.
The group was first instructed to tour the gallery at their leisure. The students fanned out, quickly perused the works and soon came back to meet with their teachers in the middle. Pauline noted that most students took around five seconds at each piece. She then encouraged them to select a single piece and analyze it for one minute while jotting notes on who they thought the person within the portrait was and why they would be getting painted. They were told to not look at the description of the work itself, but to experiment with their own creative thought process.
This time, when the students came back together, Pauline asked the students if anyone would have wanted more time to with the works. A crowd of hands shot up into the air. The students then returned to the same painting for around eight minutes to dive deeper into what they felt the symbolism meant, how the person was positioned and how constituted the scenery. Only in the last minute were they to read The Huntington’s description of the work.
Senior Enzo Repetto studied the painting of Penelope (Pitt), Viscountess Ligonier, graced in a white dress with her hair in a stylish updo while thoughtfully leaning on a pedestal, by artist Thomas Gainsborough. He said the course’s experience of going from quick look to patient study helped him to take more aspects of the work into account.
“From what you could see there, instead of just being a normal pose of a woman, once you were able to take a long stare at it, you were able to see her divine attitude, you were able to see the pen she was holding, that she’s kind of more of an intellectual writer and everything,” said Repetto. “You wouldn’t have simply seen that or noticed that if you were taking a quick glance at it.”
“I think [the course] will help me have a deeper introspection, kind of more insight into how the artist sees their art and how they tried to present it the general audience,” Repetto continued.
Junior Rediet Retta was drawn to the painting of a young woman resting on a boulder by artist George Romney. She said that having more time with the painting opened her eyes into considering who the person pictured was instead of just what colors were used in the work’s creation.
“I feel like when I’d go to museums with my family, I would look around and see which ones look interesting but I didn’t actually pay much attention to any of the people in the paintings or what was going on,” said Retta. “So I think through this course, I’ll be able to understand the artist’s purpose and why they chose to paint that.”
Pauline said the course began with a critique on online resources of paintings, and the trip to The Huntington was an opportunity to show the students what happens when they slow down and take a closer look at the works up close and personal.
“The idea is that they now understand the scale, they now understand the textures, what the paint brush strokes look like, that kind of stuff is what I may end up seeing in their reflections,” said Pauline.
Redmond concurred with her fellow teacher. She said they were working to encourage the students to get comfortable in their own analysis and interpretation of the art so that when they’re able to meet with a curator once a quarter during the year, they’ll feel confident in expressing their thoughts and observations.
“In general, we would hope that they’re able to go out into the world, think critically, to visit museums and look at art in their everyday lives, to be able to feel empowered and feel like they have something to say,” said Redmond. “To not only interpret, but to be able to evaluate as well, so hopefully this helps prepare them for the type of thinking they’ll be doing in college and then for the rest of their lives.”