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Monday, June 24, 2019

If Only the Walls Could Teach…

  • "Oligocene Mammals," by Charles R. Knight, is one of the teachable artworks that can be seen in the first floor hallway of the Liberal Arts and Science building.
  • "Parasaurolophus," by Pavel Riha, is one of the teachable artworks that can be seen in the first floor hallway of the Liberal Arts and Science building.
  • "Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus," by Charles R. Knight, is one of the teachable artworks that can be seen in the first floor hallway of the Liberal Arts and Science building.

On the first floor of the Crane Liberal Arts and Science building, a group of students is standing around, sketchpads in hand, studying a row of very large and colorful pictures of prehistoric animals. Geology students? Maybe. Biology class? Could be. But this particular group is an illustration class closely examining the styles of the various artists who contributed to this exhibit.

On the second floor, students stop to look at a display of butterflies showcased in Technicolor mountings.

In the library, students study alongside ancient African masks, sometimes looking up from their computers to gaze at “Meanwhile O Reader,” the magnificent mural by U-M Professor Jim Cogswell, who is the artist featured this month in the College’s Gallery One.

In the Student Commons, several people write notes on bits of paper and attach them to a wall-sized map of the world titled “Places you can go with languages you know.”

“The map is a way to expose students to the countries of the world,” said Judith Hommel, executive associate to WCC’s president. “They record the different languages they want to learn, or the places they’d like to travel.”

These are what Hommel calls “teachable walls.” An artist herself, Hommel has helped WCC collect an impressive permanent collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and more. But the projects she most enjoys are the “interactive” displays whose purpose is to create an exciting learning environment outside of the classroom.

“When students see a blank wall, they’re not learning anything,” she said. “If they see an illustration of a one-cell organism, they may notice but not stop to look. However, the next time, perhaps waiting for their class to start, they wander over to the wall and read the information card. We see it all the time — that’s why we’ve placed benches across from the exhibits in the LASB — so when they get a moment, students can sit and really study the pieces, enjoy them, learn from them.

“These projects involve a give and take between the faculty, who provide the educational content, and those of us who make their visions into reality,” Hommel said. “I’ll say to the faculty, ‘What do you want the students to learn?’ Then I’ll get in there and make it happen, making sure there’s a balance between visual appeal and educational value.”

Around the corner from the butterflies, three vinyl panels challenge you to “match the molecules.” The impressive display was purchased from Dr. Karl Harrison, a chemistry professor at the University of Oxford. The assignment is to match chemical formulas consisting of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur with various substances such as aspirin, caffeine, cholesterol, nicotine, and vitamin C.

“This is an interactive experience,” Hommel said. “Not only do the brightly colored drawings of the molecules draw you in, but the questions are designed to engage your thinking.”

The most recent teachable wall is the spectacular paleontology exhibit on the first floor of the LASB, created by biology instructor David Wooten, Hommel, College projects technical assistant Peter Leskevich, College painter Don King, and Julia Gleich, manager of the visual arts Production Output Center.

Paleontology is the study of prehistoric life, including organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments. This presentation features 17 pictures that form a timeline starting with the Cambrian explosion, 550 million years ago, and ending with the extinction of the giant reptiles and the evolution of mammals such as the rhinoceros and saber-toothed cats. Each picture has a card next to it describing the animal, its natural setting, and the time in which it lived.

“Basically it’s a new and novel way to show a timeline of paleoorganisms,” said Wooten, who created the timeline and chose the illustrations. “We wanted to identify unique periods in Earth’s history that had distinctive organisms that represented milestones of change, adaptation, or evolution. Because we wanted to give this exhibit some fluidity in motion, we based the timeline on an evolutionary tree that’s branchlike rather than linear.”

Wooten didn’t want illustrations of dinosaurs looking big and scary, so he looked for artists who represented each organism with biological accuracy, as well as an expression of vitality. “All of these animals have some dynamic nature to them; there’s competition, there’s scavenging, there’s vocalization, there’s maternal care,” he said. “I wanted to show them in their individual settings doing something active.”

“We wanted to show the history but do it in a polished way, using first-class artists,” Hommel said. After Wooten chose the artists, Leshkevich began contacting them or their representatives. The most famous artist is Charles R. Knight, who was best known for his paintings of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. His works have been reproduced in many textbooks and are now on display at the New York Historical Museum. When the files came in from the artists, Gleich used Photoshop tools to remove any imperfections and then enlarged the images to become
the impressive exhibit students see today.

The newly remodeled Technical and Industrial building, with its stark white walls, offers a blank canvas for Hommel’s next project. “We’re planning to create a gateway to student art,” she said. “Students will submit their work, and then we’ll select pieces for mounting. Finally, we’ll paint the walls lots of interesting colors designed to showcase the art.”

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