Students become art critics in class

Cornell College students transitioned into art critics as they analyzed pieces by a local artist during their Block 5 Modern Art class. 

“We learned about all different styles of modern art ranging over hundreds of years during the class,” said senior Jenna Makkawy, a B.F.A. musical theatre major. “I felt like I really learned a lot about how art has progressed into what we see today.”

Students took what they were learning in class and applied their new skills to critically examine the work by one of today’s talented local artists. Assistant Professor of Art History Khristin Montes and her students worked with Erick Wolfmeyer whose large-scale quilt exhibit “totis viribus” filled the Peter Paul Luce Gallery in McWethy Hall from Jan. 18–Feb. 19. 

“Art critics were vital to the development of many modern artists in the early to the mid-20th century and they, along with art historians, continue to influence much of the art world today,” Montes said. “For this class, students had the chance to work with a living artist, in our gallery, and practice their skills at analyzing and discussing his works.”

work by artist Erick Wolfmeyer
“totis viribus” in Peter Paul Luce Gallery of McWethy Hall

Inspired from a broad array of sources, Wolfmeyer’s work celebrates and extends the possibilities of the medium, while remaining true to the geometry and construction techniques of traditional quilt making.

Each student was assigned one quilt for the class project. First, they performed a formal visual analysis using their skilled first impressions. Then, they listened to the artist talk about each piece and wrote a reflection. Finally, they researched and analyzed how the works fit within the larger picture of modern and contemporary art, using the themes covered in class. The students pulled each of the three parts of this project into a final paper.

“Instead of writing a paper on a work of art that’s been written about over and over, it was so exciting to write about a work of art that hadn’t been written about in a scholarly way before,” said senior Fiona Dwyer, who is earning a B.S.S. in Devised and Ensemble Based Theatre in Marginalized Communities. “It made me feel like I was actually learning to be an expert in the field, not just a student in a class.”

Senior psychology major Zakkiyya Ali was also a student in the Modern Art course. She found many ways to tie what she was learning back to her major and enjoyed being able to spend the entire block on interpreting art.

“As a senior, I have gotten pretty familiar with the block plan, so it was nice to dive into the world of Modern art in 18 days,” Ali said. We got to really know the work of the feature artist.” 

As a final step, Wolfmeyer took the students’ work and created a video display for his professional website. 

“This is a very big deal for our students,” Montes said. “In many respects, it is a job that art historians and critics have in ‘the real world.’ I think the exercise has also been quite helpful for the artist as it provides an academic perspective on his work and the show in general. This is the first time the artist will have trained art historians addressing and analyzing his work.”

Montes says her favorite part of the course was watching her students apply their knowledge and build upon their own ingenuity. In fact, she says some of the students’ skilled interpretations of Wolfmeyers’ pieces would be comparable to writings in an art journal. Many will take the skills they’ve learned from this single course with them for the rest of their lives.

“Bombarded with visual imagery in this century, we often look without truly seeing,” Montes said. “Art and art history at Cornell trains students to be more careful and critical in the way we see the world. Students ultimately learn to deepen their own confidence in themselves as young adults in the world because they are first relying upon and trusting their own perceptions and then supporting and possibly revising some of these perceptions with evidence they find from academic research.”