Traveling art exhibit delivers memorable learning experience

By Jennifer Holloway - Staff Writer
Enfield - posted Fri., Apr. 15, 2011
Elizabeth Rhoades points out various features of van Gogh's paintings. Photos by Jennifer Holloway.
Elizabeth Rhoades points out various features of van Gogh's paintings. Photos by Jennifer Holloway.

“It’s a lovely trip you take with your eye,” Elizabeth Rhoades said to her class of second grade students who were gathered on the floor staring up at silk reproductions of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Rhoades, an art teacher for three Enfield elementary schools and a professional artist, explained to Hazardville Memorial students how van Gogh used arching trees to lead the eye to the door in his "Trees in the Garden of St. Paul’s Hospital."

Using a traveling exhibit unit from Teacher’s Discovery, a company that provides educational tools, Rhoades helped students understand not only the basics of what makes a van Gogh a van Gogh, but also how passion gives life and breath to artists’ work.

When the PTO approached Rhoades for ideas for a school-wide art presentation, she suggested the traveling exhibits. The organization purchased four different units to showcase for one week each during the semester.The first exhibit, Art Beyond Borders, included works from all over the world. The second, Ancient Egypt, gave students a chance to study Egyptian culture, languages and codes.

While the exhibits are available for the public to view, Rhoades is more concerned with engaging the children. Rather than hanging the van Gogh exhibit close to the school office, she hung it in a less traveled location so she could discuss his works with fewer distractions.

“People laughed at him because he used so much paint,” Rhoades told students, describing the thick clumps the painter used to sculpt on the canvas. “Some paintings took a month to dry.”

Taking turns pointing out interesting features like cobblestones and a woman’s parasol, students learned about the time period when van Gogh lived. One of his most famous works, "The Starry Night," sparked the most discussion. Rhoades asked them to make connections, and the swirling stars over the quiet village produced many memories.

One boy shared a story of a camping trip where he laid under the stars, and a girl remembered staying in a hotel where she could look out and see stars over a row of houses. Another student immediately thought of Bright Nights at Forest Park in Springfield, Mass.

Rhoades told the second grade group that van Gogh’s paintings were full of feelings; they were from the heart. “If you just want a picture, get a camera,” she said. “You can’t copy someone’s feelings.”

Because Rhoades uses the same exhibit for every grade, she tailors her lessons to fit their level of learning and attention span. For example, the kindergarteners spent a short amount of time with the vinyl panels from the Ancient Egypt exhibit, but they made beaded Egyptian bracelets with the rest of their time.

“You really do have to strike while the iron is hot,” Rhoades commented. She finds that students at this age want to engage in the discussion and ask many questions. Using van Gogh’s troubled life as an example, Rhoades was able to discuss mental health issues, autism and lead poisoning with older students and teach them how differences should be respected. With the sixth-grade students, she felt comfortable telling them of van Gogh’s tragic death, but when a second-grader asked, she gently replied, “It’s too sad to talk about.”

The final Teacher’s Discovery Traveling Exhibit - Pablo Picasso - will be on display at Hazardville Memorial May 16-20.




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