Eighth grade lecture combines history of religion and study of art

Cece Coughlin, Staff Writer

Visual Arts Department Chair and Upper Division art history teacher Dr. Anna Hetherington lectured eighth-grade students about art history in Southern, South Eastern, and Eastern Asia on Wednesday, as part of a larger four-part series of art history lectures held throughout the year. The lecture series occurs every year, Middle Division (MD) history teacher Katharine Rudbeck said.

The lectures act as an extension of the eighth-grade history curriculum, Rudbeck said. Part of the history course serves to answer existential questions, such as “what comes after death?” through religious and cultural studies with a focus on Hindu and Buddist culture, she said.

The first lecture taught students how to look at and analyze art, with a particular focus on Hindu art, Hetherington said. “It’s an introduction to looking at art but also ties to the curriculum.”

The art piece reflects what students have been learning about Hindu religion and culture and their different social groups and traditions, Julia Lourenco (8) said. “We have to take notes, analyze them, and submit them to our history class,” she said.

At the first lecture, Hetherington introduced the idea of formal analysis of art by explaining how students can think intelligently about looking at art and the visual world, she said. She also spoke about art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) during the lecture, which the students will look at during the year.

Before COVID-19, eighth graders would take a field trip to the Met, Hetherington said. This year, she hopes to bring the Hindu and Buddhist artwork that students would normally see at the museum into the classroom.

Even with field trip restrictions, Hetherington found other ways to help students approach objects critically, aside from her lectures, she said. “The eighth-graders are actually going to have Upper Division (UD) students come to them in their classes to write visual cues on posters and scripts to try to engage them.”

Those UD students belong to What is a Masterpiece?, Hetherington’s advanced art history class. “We were all assigned an 8th-grade class to go to half supervise, half support while she was giving the Zoom,” Dalia Pustilnik (12) said.

Using examples from museums, Hetherington introduced the idea of formal analysis, a way to help students derive meaning from artwork. To do this, art historians use questions such as: “What is happening here? What is going on? Even if you don’t remember who this character is from your studies in history, how can you use visual cues to understand what is going on here?” Hetherington said.

Hetherington asked the students leading questions about art pieces she presented to get them to think more deeply about the object in front of them, Pustilnik said. “Students were able to either type in the chat of the Zoom or unmute to answer the question and propose something that they had observed,” she said.

Learning about formal analysis showed Chloe Ludwig (8) there are many ways to interpret art and figure out how to understand the story the piece is telling you using angles and other visual details, she said.

The main piece of art that the lecture focused on was a sculpture of Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism, on display at the Met, Pustilnik said. “Using the combination of an introduction to formal analysis and asking questions, the students learned a lot about what different elements of Hindu art related to what they were learning in class about the different deities.” Overall, the lecture enhanced the knowledge students received in their religion classes, she said.

UD Students in What is a Masterpiece? will also visit eighth-grade history classes in the first week of November and present three objects from the Met, she said.

“We are doing pieces from the Met in the hopes that students will go visit them on their own time,” Hetherington said. “This way we are leaving it open so that students will have the skills to look at art, and then when they go to the Met on their own, they can understand the work.”

Since students look at so much art in history class, the knowledge of knowing how to interpret it makes them learn history in a better way, Ludwig said.