Back Talk

Conversing With Art

Art is a language. Artists communicate with us through color, form, subject, scale, texture, movement, and symbols. We all know how to “read” this language, if we stop and engage with the art. While many of us believe we can’t understand art, I’ve found that we are usually selling ourselves short. Instead, we can be intimidated by dense verbal discussions of art that leap beyond what is before us to complex interpretations and inferences. If we use our eyes and look closely at the work created, we can understand a great deal of the visual language. 

Lesley Wright

Think of a visit to an art museum as a conversation. Walk into a room and decide whom you would like to talk with (which work of art). What questions do you want to ask? What does the art tell you in return? What are its friends and neighbors telling you? Do they get along? 

Curators and exhibition designers (should) present exhibitions so that conversation comes naturally: conversation with the visitor and conversations among the works of art. The very best exhibitions that I visit, no matter how difficult or abstract the art, are ones where I can see that everything is there for a reason. Every piece has a relationship to others, sparks new ideas as I move through the space, or gives me a reason to look again at something I missed before. Being in the room excites my interest, and I want to grasp the argument made by the curator.  

The art on view is the end point in a long process of curating and creating an exhibition. For every presentation of art, someone had to make an inspired series of decisions to generate the conversation we have with the art. Showing art by culture, by chronology, by theme, or by color are all choices, not self-evident schemes.

How do we select the art and exhibitions we bring to Faulconer Gallery? That, too, is a conversation among curators and museum staff, and with artists, faculty, other museums and organizations who specialize in sharing exhibitions with museums. Sometimes we go out and create an entirely new exhibition, born of an idea in a curator’s mind. Sometimes we look for existing exhibitions planned at another museum and available to us. Weaving together these opportunities builds a stimulating exhibition program. Most of our exhibitions come together in about two years, but more complex or highly desirable shows can be in development for three years or more. Sometimes we seize an opportunity and bring a project to the gallery is about six months. 

Faulconer Gallery presents eight to 12 exhibitions a year, large and small. A powerful exhibition might have six works of art or more than 100. What matters most is great art and strong core ideas that can be shared visually with the public. Daniel Strong, associate director and curator of exhibitions, might work with a single artist on a project created just for Grinnell. Kay Wilson, curator of the collection, may develop an exhibition of prints from the collection in concert with a few faculty members. I may curate an exhibition about art in the Midwest with the Center for Prairie Studies. Or one of us might leap at an opportunity to curate an exhibition that beats with the pulse of contemporary art created elsewhere in the world. 

Exhibitions developed in partnership with others make the conversations in the gallery richer, informed by perspectives honed in other disciplines. Our programming makes some of these discussions available to our audience. Whether we pay to bring an exhibition to our walls or to build out a new idea ourselves, we seek a connection with our campus and community. Through the art we bring to Grinnell and our abundant programming, we hope you can join the conversation.

Lesley Wright has been director of Faulconer Gallery since 1999.

From Egypt to Iowa

I recently became a U.S. citizen; and the day I took my oath, I voted in my first presidential election.

I am an American by choice. More than 17 years ago, I arrived in the Midwest, a young graduate student looking forward to studying in an inclusive vibrant classroom where men and women equally participated in class discussion. For me, the Midwest was fascinating. Unlike the weather, people were nice and warm. I adjusted really well and became part of the community. I excelled academically, took part in interfaith discussion groups, volunteered in organizations working with the disabled people and was welcomed in the homes of my host families during the holidays. I was embraced and accepted, and I reciprocated and gave back.

Mervat Youssef

I chose to be an American. After graduating from the University of Iowa, I landed a job at Grinnell College. I earned it. I have worked hard, participated in educating hundreds of young men and women, obeyed the law, contributed to the economy, and paid my fair share of taxes. I was very happy to stay in the state I now call home. I chose to be an Iowan.

On Nov. 9, Donald Trump became president-elect despite losing the popular vote. My vote was not as valuable as some others. The electoral system in the United States does not guarantee that all votes are equal. Thus, although the majority of Americans did not vote for a candidate as divisive as Trump is, he is now president-elect. 

Following his populist rhetoric, I had anticipated the election outcome. It was my reaction that I had not anticipated. Donald Trump said he will be a president for all Americans, and he should. However, his administration choices, especially that of chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is a white nationalist, is indicative of anything but being a president for all Americans. This is expected of Trump. What is not expected, however, is the deafening silence Trump’s choices received from fellow Americans who voted for him. I am yet to know of a single person who identifies as a Trump supporter who publicly voiced concerns about Bannon’s prospective appointment.

I chose to be American and I chose to be Iowan, but as I see many of my fellow Iowans stand silent before Trump’s choices, I find myself wondering if the smiles I see everywhere belong to hearts that no longer want me here. This is exactly how alienation happens.

My oath ceremony experience was a heartwarming one. In a room filled with diverse faces of those who are soon-to-be fellow Americans, a video of American people and places appeared on a large screen. Among them were Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I have a dream” speech inspired generations, and the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered it. “America the Beautiful” played in the background. I looked at the faces of my soon-to-be fellow Americans and those on the screen, including President Lincoln’s face carved into Mount Rushmore. The America we chose to be citizens of and pledged allegiance to looked both diverse and inclusive. This is what I will hang on to. This is what I will always see. 

First-Year Classes Go Abroad

This past spring, I and 14 fellow first-year students enrolled in a semester-long course of a lifetime. Origins of Liberal Education marked one of two pilot courses* in what I hope will become a long line of Global Learning Program (GLP) tutorials. The GLP tutorials aim to connect first-year students to the global community through the fusion of a semester-long class and course-embedded travel experiences. The program was made possible by the generous support of Trustee Susan Holden McCurry ’71 and the Roland and Ruby Holden Foundation.

Led by our two professors, Aysha Pollnitz, newly named assistant professor of history at Rice University, and Mirzam Perez, associate professor of Spanish, our class of fresh-faced first-years logged more than three weeks and 7,500 miles of unforgettable globe-trotting. 

Through our travels, we experienced the topic of our course firsthand. Suddenly, the concepts we dicussed in class, which addressed how liberal education has shaped cultural, political, religious, and economic life, became tangible objects and experiences. 

The Origin of Liberal Education tutorial group gathers in front of the University of Salamanca

Our travels began during Grinnell’s spring break, when we abandoned our cozy classroom and headed across the Atlantic, straight to the cobbled streets of Rome. For two weeks, we scoured the limits of Spain and Italy, frequenting museums, architectural wonders, and historical sites — not to mention the occasional gelato stand (or two). 

In Padua, Italy, we stood on the ground level of the world’s first anatomical theatre, where live dissections were once taught, and reclined in the same sala magna where Galileo Galilei once hosted his astronomy lectures. In Florence, we gazed up at the smooth curvatures of Michelangelo’s “David” and gazed down at the city’s skyline from the top of Brunelleschi’s perfect Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. 

The second portion of our travels spilled over into the first week and a half of summer vacation. Our class ventured to Mexico City, where we toured the the remains of Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city, and reveled in the beauty of Frida Kahlo’s studio at La Casa Azul. 

Four students ham it up in a leap on the top of the pyramid

With each new city and each new adventure, we saw a different part of our course come to life. At the University of Padua, we saw how the tenets of the liberal arts shaped the growth of one of Europe’s oldest universities. At the top of the Duomo, we observed how Brunelleschi’s interdisciplinary approach to architecture influenced his innovative design. And, from the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, we witnessed the role education played in the development of one of Mexico’s oldest cities. 

As a class, we were fueled by genuine excitement — an excitement that only grew stronger with each new experience and each new academic connection. 

Megan Tcheng

Even today, long after I unpacked my suitcase and stored away my passport, I still feel a genuine, reverberating excitement. The Global Learning Program tutorial has shifted the way I view my education at Grinnell. It has made me consider the impact of ancient histories and foreign cultures. It has made me question the roots of my own experience. And, above all else, it has made me undeniably excited for my next three years at Grinnell.

From Secular to Chassidic Judaism

Becoming a Chassidic observant Jew was the furthest thing from my game plan as a free-spirited, liberal-minded Grinnellian back in the ’80s. I loved walking barefoot around campus, diving deep into philosophical discussions at the Forum, and hanging out underground at the Pub Friday nights. Here, in the middle of the vast cornfields of Iowa, lay fertile ground for an adventurous and meaningful life. Meeting people from across the globe, taking classes about any and every subject under the sun, and having professors who cared to give time and attention to each student was such a gift. My young mind opened to questions and controversies, always focused on making the world a better place.

After graduating, I moved to Berkeley, Calif., where I received a letter (life before the Internet) from my College boyfriend, David Feldman ’90, who was visiting Israel. He spoke about miracles, G-d, eating kosher, and learning from ancient texts. My once-partner in liberal-secularism had taken an unexpected detour — he was embracing religious Judaism.

Since I had never heard of a secular Jew becoming an observant Jew, I brought the letter to a rabbi that I found in the Yellow Pages. He told me that David was in a cult and advised that I go to Israel and get him out, as he was being brainwashed. Wow. That threw me for a loop — hopefully it wasn’t too late.

I boarded a plane for Israel, armed with a slew of antireligious books, feminist books, evolution books — whatever I could read and carry, I brought. When I met up with David, he already wore the traditional knotted fringes (tzitzits), covered his head with a kipa (yarmulke), and donned black boxes called tefillin every day. He was learning traditional Judaism based on an educational movement started by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to increase Judaic knowledge and practice among Jews worldwide.

Upon lengthy discussions with David, I realized that it was not a cult that he was following, but the ways of his ancestors, a tradition of strict laws carried down for centuries.

I enrolled in classes myself and spent my days and nights learning and arguing the authenticity of the Torah (Old Testament) with my teachers, rabbis and rebbetzins — as female teachers are called. My experience at Grinnell taught me how to meet intellectual challenges head on, with courage and open-mindedness. While the concepts were foreign to me as a secular-minded individual, I was open enough to explore the possibilities of this significant spiritual reality. It was such a paradigm shift that it was a several-year transformative journey.

Today, David and I are married and living in Chicago as committed Lubavitch Chassidim (a mystically minded form of traditional Judaism). As much as this faith-based, traditional path differs from the liberal path that I walked at Grinnell, I still consider myself a Grinnellian. I lead an adventurous life raising six children and engage in deep, philosophical discussions around our guest-laden Sabbath meals. Although I’m not dressed in the same clothes that I wore on campus, preferring a head covering and modest clothes instead, my Grinnell values have never waned. From Grinnell I learned the importance of making the world a better place, doing acts of kindness, and living life true to one’s values. These core traits I carry with me on my journey through life.