The Art of Writing for Children: An Interterm Course at the Mead Art Museum

Two Amherst College students recently joined a staff member at the Mead Art Museum on a mission: to write and illustrate a book for children in four days.

Sounds doable, right? Kids’ books are short. And who’s better at putting things together fast than college students, notorious for writing papers at the last minute?

Mead picture copy
Left to right: Keely Sarr, Alexis Teyie ’16, Cosette Lias ’17

The Amherst students, Alexis (Alex) Teyie ’16 and Cosette Lias ’17, meet for the first time on Tuesday, Jan. 5, at the Mead Art Museum, a day after returning to campus from winter break. It’s “Interterm,” the lull between fall and spring semester when short noncredit courses are offered for students who come back to school early for the chance to do or learn something unique, beyond the usual curriculum.

“The Art of Writing for Children” was the brainchild of Keely Sarr, a recent Cornell University grad who’s been the Mead’s assistant museum educator since 2014. She majored in creative writing and art history, and is a veteran writer and performer in Cornell’s famous 24-Hour Playfest.

Day 1

After introductions, Keely leads the students around the museum pointing out the artworks that are most popular with young visitors. For example, children love Thomas Cole’s magnificent painting The Past (1838) that features a castle and jousting match. They’re drawn by Cole’s vibrant colors, the canvas’s great size (40 1/2 x 60 1/2 in), and the festive feeling of the scene.

the past
Thomas Cole (American, 1801-1848). The Past, 1838. Oil on canvas. Museum Purchase, 1950.189

The group also looks over art-museum picture books for inspiration. One they particularly admire is The Museum Book written by Jan Mark and illustrated by Richard Holland.

Both Alex and Cosette are interested in writing and have substantial skills in drawing and painting, and Keely has previous book-design experience, as the designer of Dress Mead Up (2014), the book of paper dolls that features artwork by Amherst graduate María Darrow ’15.

Day 2

The second day is dedicated to making major decisions about the shape of the book. The first question is whether to write the book as fiction or nonfiction. Everyone votes unanimously in favor of fiction.

Next, they have to decide on a main character. Inspired by works on the walls, and thinking how important it is to focus on what children have already shown an interest in at the Mead, everyone decides to base the story on the adventures of the male hummingbird that dominates this oil painting on view at the Mead:

Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819–1904), Red-Tailed Comet (Hummingbird) in the Andes,  ca. 1883. Oil on canvas. Gift of Herbert W. Plimpton, The Hollis W. Plimpton (Class of 1915) Memorial Collection, 1969.86.a

The painting, by Hudson River School artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), is titled Red-Tailed Comet (Hummingbird) in the Andes, and it’s one of the Mead’s best-known nineteenth-century American oil paintings.

In the proposed picture book, it’s decided that the hummingbird will fly south for the winter, taking a shortcut through the museum. (“Shortcut,” they decide, will be the title of the book.) In the end he’ll arrive at his own painting, where his companion, the female hummingbird depicted in the nest of Red-Tailed Comet, welcomes him home. Along the way, the hummingbird, named Comet, will make stops in other “painted worlds.”

There’s no question that young visitors to the Mead do love Heade’s hummingbird. Here are some drawings they’ve made of him in the recent past:

The students decide to illustrate the story in mixed media using oil pastels and photographs of museum works. The main character will be drawn by hand, and the image rendered digitally so it can be manipulated throughout the pages. The students will do the drawing, while Keely gets to work on the pages and cover using InDesign.

A map of pages is drawn up as the group agrees on the arc of the hummingbird’s story.

Day 3

Today the group works together to sketch out the entire plot. Alex then takes the lead in writing the actual text, which comes to about 300 words. (With a bit of editing later, the final word count will be just under 300.) Meanwhile, Cosette produces a watercolor of the front of the Mead, incorporating a photograph of the door, with its marble pediment. She adds other collage elements to the finished watercolor, including details from images of artworks in the Mead’s collection.

mead building

Day 4

On the last day of the class, Cosette completes pastel renditions of Comet. Later, using the photographed images she has scanned, Keely places the bird in various settings. He can fly over the Mead (above) or into this painting, Frederic Edwin Church’s Al Ayn (The Fountain):

the fountain spread
Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900). Al Ayn (The Fountain), 1882. Oil on canvas. Gift of Herbert W. Plimpton: The Hollis W. Plimpton (Class of 1915) Memorial Collection, 1972.109. (With added element by Cosette Lias and Keely Sarr)

It’s a bit more challenging to spot Comet on this page, which makes use of a nineteenth-century woodblock print by Japanese artist Yasuji Inoue titled The Azuma Restaurant:

azuma restaurant
Yasuji Inoue (Japanese, 1864-1889). The Azuma Restaurant, 1888. Woodblock print. Museum Purchase, 2008.47.1-3. (With added element by Cosette Lias and Keely Sarr)

Alex, Cosette, and Keely review the text together and give it a final polish, with the addition of alliterative elements (“fly south before the winter froze all his feathers”) and transitions that enhance the flow and make it fun to read.

In designing the book’s cover, Keely draws on eight Mead artworks — one for each letter in the title. Look closely and you see Jean François Millet’s Peasant Woman Raking in the “S,” a seventeenth-century Persian bowl in the “H,” and so on.


To further encourage close looking, Alex, Cosette, and Keely include an exercise in the back of the book that asks readers to find certain objects sprinkled throughout the illustrated pages. A full index of all the works represented in the book is included as well.


A local printer will carry out the last step in the production process. At sixteen pages long, the book will be perfect for the hundreds of children who visit the Mead with school groups or their families. Tours for school groups are often led by Amherst College students on Team Mead, the trained guides who, in addition to offering tours for museum visitors, host evening programs for their fellow students at the museum.

Team Mead is organizing a book launch of Shortcut as part of the Gallery Gala that will take place Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 7 pm at the Mead.

Sheila Flaherty-Jones


Urban Scenes and Landscapes by Russian Artists: Questions for Curator Bettina Jungen

For many of us, Russian art is like the Russian landscape — large swaths of uncharted territory. But this year’s exhibition at the Amherst Russian Center, titled “Journeys in Space and Memory: Urban Scenes and Landscapes by Russian Artists,” makes the art and landscape of Russia accessible even to the uninitiated.

We talked recently with exhibition organizer Bettina Jungen, the Mead Art Museum’s senior curator and Thomas P. Whitney, Class of 1937, Curator of Russian Art, who assures us that not all Russian art is abstract, and not every landscape is buried in a whiteout of snow. 

Bettina Jungen, curator of Russian art

In addition to its English title, you’ve given the exhibition a Russian name: ПОД ОТКРЫТЫМ НЕБОМ. What does that mean?  It means “Under Open Skies.”

When we hear the phrase “Russian landscape,” most of us picture Siberia, with its desolate steppes and arctic temperatures. Is that what people can expect to see in this exhibition?  Not at all. The “Russian” artists in the exhibition were born and lived in many places throughout the Russian Empire, Europe, and the United States. The exhibition features this geographical diversity in a wide range of views, including Mikhail Larionov’s sunbathed Moldavian rural scene, Robert Falk’s sunny boulevard in Paris, and Marianne von Werefkin’s Latvian landscape in vibrant purple and blue tones.

Sunbathed Moldavian rural scene. Mikhail Larionov (Russian, 1881–1964). Landscape with Wagon, 1909. Oil on canvas laid on fiberboard. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.20

Nearly all the artists represented in the show were born in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union but immigrated to France or the US, fleeing, I assume, political persecution under the Soviet regime. But the works in this show don’t strike me as politically charged at all. What did the Soviet authorities find objectionable about such art? The fate of each artist in the exhibition is different. Some were abroad and could not return when the October Revolution hit Russia [in 1917]. Others left Russia for economic and political reasons after the Revolution, and one artist, Oskar Rabin, was expelled by the authorities.

Picture of ambivalence. The artist loved this spot in the countryside but hated the Soviet government. He was deprived of citizenship and expelled in the late 1970s. Oskar Rabin (Russian, b. 1928). Spring in Priluki, 1967. Oil on canvas, applied paper elements. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.346

Censorship and repression became acute in the 1930s. Art was under attack either for not being relevant to the Soviet system or for not reflecting the “happy” Soviet life, or simply for its modernist formal approaches. The most direct political example is Rabin’s Spring in Priluki, which looks like winter with its gray tones and black outlines. This painting addresses the artist’s disagreement with the Soviet system.

One of the paintings on view, Red Houses in Moscow by Natal’ia Goncharova, sounds like a map of where the Communist Party leaders live. But that’s not what it is at all, right?  While red is the color of the Soviet flag, it is also the color of the many brick buildings in Moscow. And red is a dominant color in Russian visual culture. It appears prominently in icons, crafted objects, and traditional clothing. Goncharova painted Red Houses to capture the neighborhood in which she had her Moscow studio.

red houses
The neighborhood where Goncharova had her studio, over a decade before the October Revolution of 1917. Natal’ia Goncharova (Russian, 1881–1962). Red Houses in Moscow, 1904. Oil on canvas. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.13

I think of twentieth-century Russian art as abstract, just shapes and lines, like a Kandinsky painting. But in this exhibition I see paintings where trees look like — trees.  Many Russian modernist artists who are barely known in the West worked in a figurative manner and are — in Russia — recognized as important contributors to the development of Russian art. Amherst’s Thomas P. Whitney, Class of 1937, Collection of Russian Art, from which this exhibition is entirely drawn, takes this characteristic of Russian art into account.

The Russian artistic movements that pursued geometrical abstraction in one way or another fit better into the Western art-historical canon, and therefore are better known and appreciated in the West. For Russians and Russian art historians, however, the scope of great Russian art is much larger.

Abstract geometric works are what many Westerners think of when they think of early 20th-century Russian art. Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944). Kleine Welten I (Small Worlds I), 1922. Color lithograph on Japanese paper. Gift of Richard G. Bump, in memory of Elmo Giordanetti, 1985.75

Do you find paintings of familiar objects and places easier to understand than abstract works?  Not necessarily. Figurative works can be tricky. You think you know what they show, but you don’t always. Or you don’t know what to make of the subject because it’s from a different cultural context. It’s true that familiar objects are often more accessible at first sight. This was one of the reasons for the establishment of Socialist Realism and its subsequent popularity.

Back to the show’s title — what are “Journeys in Memory”?  As I mentioned earlier, many artists left Russia at some point between the late nineteenth century and the 1970s, with no option to return. They took journeys back home through their memories. Alexandre Benois, for example, depicted his birthplace, St. Petersburg, over and over while living in his new home in France.

Benois 2
Benois frequently painted his home city of St. Petersburg from memory while living in France. Alexandre Benois (Russian, 1870–1960). View of the River Okhta in St. Petersburg, 1959. Watercolor and graphite on medium weight wove paper. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.418

You were raised and educated in Switzerland, and have been working in Amherst — far from your home country — for many years. Do you feel sympathy with the Russian émigré artists whose memories are of a distant home?  Well, I certainly do from an intellectual point of view. I am not a refugee, however, and hope that I will always be able to return to my country. This is the essential difference.

Journeys in Space and Memory: Urban Scenes and Landscapes by Russian Artists is on view in the Russian Center Art Gallery, Webster Hall, 2nd floor, at Amherst College through spring 2016.

Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones