The Collection Goes to Class: Using “Femfolio” in “Gender in Visual Culture”

Last month, I visited with Professor Jennifer Borland’s “Gender in Visual Culture” students as they had an up-close visit with the Femfolio—a portfolio of prints in our collection that was recently featured at the Malinda Berry Fischer Gallery. In this week’s post, Professor Borland writes about the conversations that students had while they were in the classroom with the artworks, and the value that they found in engaging directly with works of art. In future weeks, we’ll feature some of the essays that students wrote about individual works in the portfolio after that initial encounter.

I have experimented with numerous ways to incorporate the museum’s collection into the various art history courses I teach: creating assignments that require students to engage with or write about exhibitions in the Gardiner Gallery; developing group projects in which students view a work of art from the collection in person with the museum’s registrar, and then put together a PowerPoint presentation to share with their classmates; and most recently, in my Gender in Visual Culture course, bringing works of art directly into the classroom.

Students in Jennifer Borland's "Gender in Visual Culture" class look at "Femfolio" prints.

Students in Jennifer Borland’s “Gender in Visual Culture” class examine “Femfolio” prints. Photo by Jennifer Borland.

This was an extremely rewarding activity, not only for myself, but for the students as well.  The course has a segment on feminist art and artists, and OSU’s collection just happens to include a 2007 portfolio of prints called the Femfolio, in which twenty artists associated with the feminist art movement of the 1970s were asked by the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions to create limited edition prints.

Students in Jennifer Borland's "Gender in Visual Culture" class look at the "Femfolio."

Students in Jennifer Borland’s “Gender in Visual Culture” class explore the “Femfolio.” Photo by Jennifer Borland.

These prints, 12 x 12 inches each, offer a range of styles and subject matter that reflect the diversity of the artists included.  For instance, some are figurative and comment overtly on feminist issues (Joan Snyder, Angry Women, or Emma Amos, Identity), while others are resolutely abstract and therefore much more resistant to feminist readings (Athena Tacha, Knots, or Diane Neumaier, Toccata).  As such, the prints raised a number of interesting and important questions pertinent both to the portfolio specifically, and to our class as a whole.  Why was this portfolio created? Who was asked to participate in the portfolio, and why? Why were so few artists of color included, and how does that reflect some of the criticisms of 1970s feminism?

Student Kris Swank looks closely at Athena Tacha's print, "Knots," from the "Femfolio." In the background, student Daniel King looks at another print from the portfolio.

Student Kris Swank looks closely at Athena Tacha’s print, “Knots,” from the “Femfolio.” In the background, student Daniel King investigates another print from the portfolio. Photo by Jennifer Borland.

The more we discussed the portfolio, the more questions we had. How did the artists balance the portfolio’s historical purpose with the work they were doing in 2007?  How can abstract art be understood as feminist?  Should it be?  What does it mean to talk about all of these women as feminist artists, given the diversity of ideas offered in the prints?

Students look at the "Femfolio."

Students study the “Femfolio.” Photo by Jennifer Borland.

When I asked the students how they found the process of discussing these images as a group, and then writing about a specific piece, their replies reminded me why assignments like this can be so useful.  They pointed to the greater intimacy they were able to achieve with the artwork; they could get really close and examine the piece’s details in a way that one never can with projected images, no matter how high-definition they are.  Other students pointed to the way that conversation flowed more freely when we were all hunched over an image.  And for the students who are from disciplines that don’t often write about art, they found that the assignment allowed them to explore a different kind of writing than they were used to.  It is clear to me that these students had an enriched experience as a result of their engagement with the collection.

Each student selected an individual print from the "Femfolio" to research and write about in more detail.

Each student selected an individual print from the “Femfolio” to research and write about in more detail. Photo by Jennifer Borland.

Although I am our program’s medieval art historian, I enjoy teaching courses that involve more contemporary artwork, in part because I am then able to involve the museum’s collection in my teaching.  It sometimes takes a little creativity to come up with relevant assignments or projects, but as the comments above reflect, such experiences have a huge impact on my students and the ways they think about art.

The OSUMA welcomes students and faculty interested in using the collection in their coursework. For more information, contact us at museum@okstate.edu.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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