Category Archives: Students and the arts

Student Work Reflecting Memory and Loss

Early in September, I was contacted by Jennifer Williams from the DIA asking me if I was interested in participating in an exhibition that would include the work of my students. They would shot and print work that would explore the complicated ideas of memory and loss; a daunting prospect to students ranging in age from 14 to 18. If taken on, this project would be aligned to the exhibition called Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky that would open April 15, 2009. The guidelines set out at that time by Jennifer stated that “The project would use the photos in the exhibition as a catalyst to inspire students to explore themes of memory and place in their own work”. And while student work would not be inside the gallery with the work of Gusky and Vishniac, it would be given enormus respect when it was shown on a screen outside the exhibition.

The students were thrilled about the project from the onset long before they knew that inclusion in this show came in conjunction with a trip to the DIA to view the exhibition, discussion of images, general tour of the museum, and copies of the video and booklet of their work.

I can say without reservation that this project garnered more discussion of images, before and after they were shot and printed than any other assignment that I can remember. The students were engaged from the beginning but something palpable changed after we were visited by Linda Margolin and Jennifer Williams who showed the students the PowerPoint that I had seen in September. The intensity and power of the images and the discussion that followed took some of the students in a different direction; some asking if they could shoot again as they knew that only one image each would be submitted.

The students were humbled by the work they saw that day and felt honored to have their work juxtaposed to the images of Gusky and Vishniac. The fact that Jeffrey Gusky was an “amateur” photographer did little to mitigate their concerns that their work would be worthy of inclusion.

Over the next few months the issue that the students grappled with the most was how to tie their own “short” history, to the monumental history of war torn Poland and other ravaged Eastern European countries. I watched each student deconstruct this concept and reassemble it in their own visual vernacular. All the student interruptions were different and they all made the assignment their own.

Interrupting one’s own identity through the lens of a personal history is a powerful mandate and when explored fully can be a teaching tool that extends far beyond photography and the final image.

The students felt an additional connection to the exhibiting photographers as they all worked in the same medium — black and white film and darkroom printing.
We are now getting ready for our visit later this month. I feel that I can speak for all of us when I say that this will be a powerful and inspiring day.

Michelle Stamler

Detroit Area Education Focuses on Traditional and not-so-Traditional Photographic Media in 2009

The DIA has always been a haven for young artists, going back decades in its support their work with outreach projects, exhibitions and behind-the-scenes tours. Many thanks to my colleague Madeleine Winslow for blogging recently on the successful photo project she and her department managed in conjunction with the exhibition Of Life and Loss.alabel

In the past week, the DIA also opened the annual Detroit Public Schools exhibition in its 72nd year! The exhibition was exiled to the main branch of the Detroit Public Library during our renovation over the past few years, but has returned to the DIA and can be found in our new Gibbs Learning Center gallery where small exhibitions will be featured in addition to our regular drop-in workshops and other hands-on programs for young and old. We hope to add a cyanotype class and other photography inspired offerings in the studio this fall.

loose_canonAlthough I never tire of the great collections and exhibitions here at the DIA – and I am totally unbiased in saying so 🙂 – I got a chance to see art outside of the DIA this week. Lens-based media (photography, film and video) along with mixed media installation work are currently on view in the 2009 MFA graduate student exhibition Loose Canon at the Cranbrook Museum of Art. Earlier this week, Liz Cohen – artist in residence at the Cranbrook Academy of Art – invited me to speak with some of her second year MFA photography students about their work in this year’s show. Liz is new to Cranbrook having recently moved to the Detroit area from Arizona. Her class has visited the DIA several times this year looking at special areas of the collection and talking to the DIA’s curatorial staff about art and museum practice. Speaking with artists is my all time favorite pastime, so I was happy to entertain a little diversion and take some time away from the DIA to travel to Cranbrook this past Wednesday .


Ritual for Money, detail, 2009, by Kelly Frank

Particularly memorable was the conversation I had with Kelly Frank, who was my former photo student at College for Creative Studies in 2004. Interdisciplinary practice (cross media work) has become a hallmark of the Cranbrook program in recent years, and Kelly has taken on performance and installation developing a thoughtful piece entitled “Ritual for Money” inspired in concept by Native American ritual and the esoteric knowledge of wealth and success written about in Rhonda Byrne’s best-seller The Secret.

I have written before that Detroit, particularly the art scene here, seems to persevere in tough times. It was no more evident this past week as the creative spirit seems to be upon us with great energy and geniune passion. Young artists who share their creativity probably have no idea of how uplifting it can be for the obscure individual to come into contact with their work through a visit to a museum. I hope some of them may read this, because I have to thank you along with our Detroit-based art educators who would never think of giving up on culture in this city.

High school students share their perspectives

I jumped in to help out with the exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky during the last phases of development. I was immediately struck by the artists’ visually and emotionally compelling images that captured Jewish experiences in Poland at different points in time. Their photographs share the theme of memory—both how we remember the lives that once were and the void that remains when they’ve passed.

            The theme of memory applies to us all. Every time I see a photograph of my grandmother, I remember how she taught me to sew—with skill, patience, and a quiet persistence. She’s gone now, but her sewing machine remains—a durable reminder of her special talents. Her memory lives on in the stitches that help construct the garments I sew today.

We all have our own ways of thinking about memory, a fact evidenced by photographs taken by area high school students in conjunction with Of Life and Loss. I was moved by the images we received. As an educator, I’m constantly striving to find ways to make art relevant—searching for those kernels of meaning that will resonate. The results of the student photography project are those kernels – they are moving, insightful, striking, and evocative perspectives on how memory manifests itself in the everyday. Through the discerning eye of each individual student, the intricacies of remembrance emerge.

I was particularly intrigued by the fact that three different students (from two different schools) chose to take photographs of swing sets. Similar to the two photographers featured in the exhibition, the photographs by these three students focus on similar subject matter, but with distinct points of view.

In one, two swings sit empty in a black and white image of an elementary school playground. The student discusses her memories of “soaring through the skies” and her feelings of invincibility. The empty swings remind the viewer of more innocent days.

In another image, a single, broken swing hangs by a metal ring. The student recalls that “Unbroken playgrounds were scarce.” For this artist, the broken swing represents the memories that “children around Detroit hold.” The image captures the collective experiences of many urban youth.

In a third image, a series of swing sets cast linear shadows on the concrete and asphalt playground of a middle school. For this student the swings bring back memories of “swinging the shoes from our feet across the blacktop.” To her, these swing sets represent “the good ol’ days,” suggesting a loss of what once was.

These are just a few of the many student photographs that can be seen in conjunction with Of Life and Loss. Be sure to look for the students’ work when you come. A running slideshow presents the photographs accompanied by a booklet that contains artist statements. Thank you to the photography students and teachers from Dearborn High School, Renaissance High School, and Roeper High School. Your work is proof that art matters.

Photography Conservation@the DIA – UofM Students Go Behind the Scenes

Last Friday, a small group of my students from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, got a chance to experience first hand the wonders of our conservation lab here at the DIA. Conservators Valerie Baas and Chris Foster were kind enough to show them the various departments with a stop in the paper lab to look at a few objects in need of some minor repairs.


To the public, the DIA’s conservation lab may be something of an unknown entity, but it is a crucial behind-the-scenes operation with a variety of specialists that help the museum maintain and preserve its collection of  art. I have known senior paper conservator Valerie Baas for about 15 years now, and her expertise in photography has been invaluable over the years. She will be a panelist along with Denise Bethel from Sotheby’s and Boston-area conservator Paul Messier at the 2009 Winter Meeting of the Photographic Materials Group of the American Institute for Conservation to be held January 23-25, 2009 at the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon, Arizona. For more information on the AIC and its photography website  –

Students Shine in Focus Hope Photo Exhibition

Photography has been a way for Detroit-area teens to express themselves in the amazing program Annette Vanover has fostered at Focus Hope over the years. With the help of a grant from the Skillman Foundation, Vanover launched a three-year hands on photography curriculum in 2006. Recently, 21 students comprised the first graduating class from the organization’s EXCEL program.  The students’ work is now on view in at the Focus Hope Gallery  through March 27, 2009.

I first got to know Annette while working with Chicago-based artist Dawoud Bey (who, incidentally, launched his own blog site this year – on a DIA-sponsored residency project at southwest Detroit’s Chadsey High School in 2003-04. Her understanding of the arts, particularly photography, as a tool for a young individual’s development of self-awareness and insights to those around them was, and continues to be, an inspiration. 

Portraits of Chadsey High School students by Dawoud Bey, 2003 (photo by Eric Wheeler for the DIA).

Portraits of Chadsey High School students by Dawoud Bey, 2003 (photo by Eric Wheeler for the DIA).

Annette and other committed individuals like Terry Blackhawk director at InsideOut, a literary arts program active in Detroit public schools, have stayed strong and active even through tough economic times here in the city. For location & hours on the Focus Hope exhibition and more information, see &