Tag: Amherst College

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


Seeing Art in Person: A Conversation with Professor Rick López

IMG_0628This fall, Amherst history professor Rick López is teaching in the study room at the Mead Art Museum, where students in his class on “Mexican Material and Visual Culture” examine art and other objects from the museum’s rich Mexican collection. Here, López, who’s also dean of new students, tells us why it’s important to get close to art—and what it would be like to spend a day with him in Mexico City. (Hint: Pack comfortable walking shoes.)

“Mexican Material and Visual Culture” — is this a history course or an art history course?  It’s officially a history research seminar, but it is both a history course and an art history course. My hope is that by using objects and visual material in innovative ways, the course can bridge the two disciplines while enriching each of them.

How do your students feel about being surrounded by objects from Mexico’s past, some of which are truly ancient?  So far the students have really enjoyed encountering these objects directly. A photo of an object cannot begin to capture its physicality: its weight, materials, signs of its creation by hand, and marks from use acquired over time.

How does this kind of class work? Do you lecture about the objects while the students take notes?  When we look at objects, the students begin by drawing them from multiple angles, zeroing in on particular details. IMG_0629Museum staff turn the objects over to allow the students to view them from every angle. This connects them to the people and experiences of Mexico’s past in a way that images never can.

Is there something about Mexican history that never fails to surprise your students?  The proximity of the United States and Mexico creates the illusion of familiarity. Whenever I teach a course on Mexico, students are amazed at how much they did not know about our southern neighbor, and how much of what they thought they knew turns out to be different from the reality. They are also surprised by how deeply aware Mexicans tend to be of their own history, and how much the past is alive in the lives of people today.

You’re an Amherst College graduate. Was there a course like this when you were a student here?  There was not, but there were some courses that helped me realize the remarkable gap between an object and the image of it we see in a slide. Courses by Profs. Carol Clark, Kevin Sweeney, and Nicola Courtright took us into the museum to look at American and European painting.

Lettuce Pickers mural
Juana Alicia, Las Lechugueras (The Lettuce Pickers), 2794 24th St, San Francisco, 1983. Photo Tim Drescher. Photo: Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC)

My commitment to seeing art in person was deepened by my work on my senior honors thesis on San Francisco’s Chicano murals, which I wrote under the direction of Prof. Natasha Staller in Art History.

I traveled to San Francisco to walk the streets, see the Chicano murals in person, and interview the artists.

If you could take your class on a field trip to Mexico for one day, where would you take them?  I fantasize about such an opportunity. If I had just one day, I think I would take them through the streets of downtown Mexico City where they could see the intermingling of six centuries of art and urban design.

They could visit the Metropolitan Cathedral and a preconquest archaeological excavation site, which sit side by side on the main plaza.

Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
Catedral Metropolitana de México

Students could also touch the walls and floors of ostentatious colonial palaces built from the stone of the Aztec temples that the Spaniards dismantled, and which, in turn, were later subdivided into claustrophobic tiny apartments for the urban poor after their facades were cracked by earthquakes and their floors rendered uneven due to the fact that Mexico City is slowly sinking into the earth. They’d see the parts of the city where nineteenth-century urban planners demolished the colonial past, replacing it with wide avenues and buildings in the style of the Parisian Belles Époque, and which later gave way to high-modernist skyscrapers.

Courtyard of the Museo Franz Mayer

The sprawling Museum of Anthropology houses a stunning collection of preconquest art. In the Museum of Fine Art students could see masterworks of Mexican painting and sculpture from the colonial era to the present. Just a few blocks away is the Franz Mayer Museum, with the finest examples of colonial-era craftsmanship, set within an old monastery. After a short subway ride from downtown, students would retrace the route of Juan Diego up Tepeyac Hill where he is said to have met the Virgin de Guadalupe in 1531. Then they could examine the Virgin’s shroud for themselves within the Basilica. With enough time, we might even rent a van to see the great pyramids of Teotihuacán.

6378283841_efa3b845ed_oPerhaps the most exciting thing for the students might be to simply experience the flow of life and ebullient energy of the city street, and to walk through a fruit and craft market to take in the smells, tastes, sounds, and creativity of everyday Mexican people.

We’re in the middle of national Hispanic Heritage Month now (Sept 15–Oct 15), established by the federal government under President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Everyone from PBS to the NFL has events celebrating it. What’s your feeling about the month?  I value that fact that this official designation provides a moment for us, as a nation, to collectively pause to honor our Hispanic heritage and to learn about the diverse Latino population, which now makes up almost 20 percent of the United States, more than 60 percent of whom trace their heritage to Mexico.

I heard you worked at the Mead as a student in the early 1990s. What did you do exactly?  Back then things were more informal around campus and the Mead did not yet have a professional security staff. Instead, student workers guarded the artwork, answered visitors’ questions, offered tours, and gave talks. My junior year, I was put in charge of these student employees, recruiting and training them, as well as creating the work schedule. It was a great opportunity to see art up close for long periods of time, and to become friends with fellow students who shared a passion for the arts.

What’s one material object from your own life that you think would be worth studying in a US history class 300 years from now?  I have a Keuffel & Esser survey transit that belonged to my grandfather. The tool, used for surveying and measuring the landscape, is beautiful, but it is neither rare nor remarkable in itself. Its importance comes from its story.

Lopez transit
The Keuffel & Esser survey transit that belonged to Professor López’s grandfather Felipe Alderete López

My grandfather Felipe Alderete López bought it when he worked as a surveyor on government projects in southern New Mexico during the early twentieth century. Anti-Mexican attitudes of the era made it unusual for a Mexican-American to be hired as a land surveyor, and caused him to be passed over for promotion time and again in favor of Anglo newcomers whom my grandfather trained. Frustrated, Felipe quit and found work using his transit to survey land for the large landowners in the valley around his home who were supplying the booming demand for cotton. This was a bittersweet alternative, because the land my grandfather was surveying had been dispossessed from Mexicanos such as him, whose families had lived on and farmed it for two centuries. Felipe taught himself bricklaying and then modern home construction, and started a business building custom homes for the cotton farmers who were enjoying newfound wealth.
When I put my eye to the lens of my grandfather’s survey transit, I think of him looking through the same telescope at a landscape where shifting borders, political battles, and changes in property laws intersected with racism and growing economic exploitation to forever alter the destinies of the people of the US-Mexican borderland.

Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones