Darius Jutzi teaches English and journalism at Hospitality High School in Washington, D.C. He was a participant in one of this summer’s “Learning to Look” summer teacher institutes. Read more about his experience:
Portraits can be intimidating. Not physically, of course; I’m pretty sure I could take on many of the dusty old men hanging in the Portrait Gallery’s walls in a fist-fight. No, portraiture, like much of the visual art realm, can be intimidating to a novice like me. I was a self-taught label-reader who understood portraiture as far as I could identify the sitter. I’ve been to the Portrait Gallery many times before, out of some “life-long learner” obligation; it’s always been interesting, but never quite illuminating. The eyes of dead, white men wash over you, and you’re off to the next obligatory D.C. “must see”.
As if art or history could be disseminated so fast.
The crux of “Learning to Look” transfers the idea of careful analysis—in my English world, “close reading”—and applying it, with ease, to slowing down and appreciating both the artist and the sitter. It’s a marriage of history and culture, a brilliant tight-rope crossed by the museum’s professionals, and an excellent opportunity to expand one’s knowledge of both. It’s also a great way to shine a new perspective on my own curriculum and teaching.
They warned us there wouldn’t be enough time—and there never could be. School and teacher programs coordinator Briana Zavadil White, gallery educator Anne Showalter, intern Kimberly King, as well as the wonderful curators and historians who spoke with us and breathed the artistry and history of the sitters to life, offered up amazing insights and even more amazing educational processes, games and activities—as fun as they are pragmatic. It never occurred to me how useful portraiture could be in inspiring students and igniting debate
But first, it’s about slowing down, “the good ol’ 30-second look”, forcing oneself to re-wire the brain and let the art speak, and the thoughts germinate. Activities like “Look—Don’t Look,” the “Expansion Game” and “Puzzling it Out” force students to look closely and soak the portraiture in. Activities like “Jump In” are a fun and so-simple-I-can’t-believe-I’ve-never-thought-of-it way to engage students in a silly, yet academically rewarding experience.
Beyond applications, and perhaps, most important of all, “Learning to Look” broke down many assumptions I had about portraits—and painting, in general. What first seemed daunting, conflicting, or the worst...boring, now is fresh, exciting, and welcoming. Four days with Briana and the Portrait Gallery crew and I see portraits in a whole new light.
I can’t wait to teach my kids what I’ve learned—and I can’t wait to come back and learn more.