As art museums shut down or limited their displays last spring, some looked for new ways to appreciate art while confined at home.
Not many people can claim to have a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh gracing the walls of their homes. Yet, as art museums shut down or limited their displays last spring, some looked for new ways to appreciate art while confined at home. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles challenged its social media followers to “recreate a work of art with objects (and people) from the comfort of their own homes.” This challenge gained traction as more and more people searched for ways to entertain themselves during quarantine; it has become popular across the globe and in the homes of BYU art history students.
In March 2020, professor Elliot Wise (Comparative Arts and Letters) and his teaching assistant Kris Kryscynski decided their students needed a fun and engaging way to interact with the art they had been learning about all semester. Kryscynski explained, “Quarantine had just come down and the Getty Challenge came up on my news feed, and I thought to myself, ‘We should do this.’ While galleries and museums had done a good job of making exhibits available virtually, life was crazy last March, and anxiety was high for everyone. The students needed a fun way to think about art amidst all the chaos.” Dr. Wise added, “This challenge is very valuable because it requires you to look very carefully at a work of art in order to recreate it. So it does exactly what the education department at a museum wants you to do to engage very closely with the art. And in fact, this is not a wholly new idea,” Wise observed. “The idea of recreating a work of art is kind of an old idea, even if you go back to the middle ages. There were these things called tableau vivant—or living picture—where people would freeze in a position to look like a painting. These have taken a modern form in the Pageant of the Masters in Pasadena, which puts on performances of very professional models of a painting. The Getty Challenge is kind of based on these ideas, but the catch is you can only use things inside of your house.”
Students exceeded expectations in turning the everyday objects in their homes into awe-inspiring works of art. One student, Erin Atkinson, used her clothes to recreate Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Atkinson remarked, “I chose Starry Night because it’s very recognizable and I wanted people to be able to look at my recreation and recognize it for what it was. I think whenever there’s something we recognize, there’s a feeling of joy that you know something, and that’s beautiful. I also love that this piece has a rushed feeling to it—his strokes make you feel like it’s unfinished, and that’s relatable. Everyone feels a little rushed, and a starry night that we only see for a moment feels rushed because you might never see the same one again. Van Gogh captures this feeling with a lot of texture and movement. I felt like a good way to capture that would be through clothes, especially since denim is a bit rough.” When reflecting on how this project helped her appreciate being at home, Atkinson mused, “I think that a lot of times we feel like we have to go out to be able to learn things, but even just in doing the Getty challenge, I was able to practice a little bit of the creative side of me and learn more about Van Gogh and his style. You don’t really have to go out. It’s a skill to look at what you have in your little space and try to do something with it because there’s so much we can do—we tend to just not see it.”
Not only did the project help students see their homes in a new light, it helped them work with and see art in a completely new fashion. Kris Kryscynski remarked, “There were some kids who did [the project] who weren’t normally very engaged, and they put significant time and effort into this project, showing advanced synthesis of the material. Because this was a kinesthetic project, you could see their skills in ways that you didn’t normally see. In a lecture-based class, where you have written exams and papers, this set of skills doesn’t apply to everyone, but this project allowed us to see how students were engaging with and learning the material themselves even if other assignments didn’t show it. Humanities education isn’t just for smart people who like to read Latin; we study humanities because it teaches us about who we are as humans. Art is for everyone—it’s not just for ‘A’ students; it’s for ‘C’ students; it’s for ‘F’ students. Our project captured that in a way that other assignments don’t. A student can get a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ and still love art, and it’s okay because in the end the grade doesn’t matter. What matters is that you get from art what you need to get from it.”
One thing many students got from their art recreations was a bit of relief from the chaos and anxiety that had that had arisen with with the cancellation of in-person classes. Kryscynski reflected, “I’m sure it’s stress-relieving to be involved in the creative process. There’s something about connecting to the art pieces, especially works that are hundreds of years old. Part of art history is learning about all the terrible things that have happened. And living through a pandemic, it’s powerful to be able to connect to art about a big event like the French Revolution, which was a similarly chaotic time. This connectivity was one of the reasons I enjoyed the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog that [one student], Bekah Mecham, did. She used toilet paper for the cliffs. In art history we talk about how art reflects the moment, and, at that time, toilet paper was more precious than bitcoin.” Kryscynski explained that assessing and recreating older and newer paintings helped illuminate the shared human elements across time and space. “There’s a sense of continuity and shared human experience, and I think it allows you to recognize that the world is bigger than yourself. As a human race, we’ve passed through the black death, and we made it, and we’ll make it through this one too.”
Dr. Wise agreed that the Getty Challenge helped his students cope with the challenges brought on by the global pandemic. He mused, “I think that it probably helped the students in the same way that it helped people across the globe in that it’s very funny, and it’s also kind of awe-inspiring and empowering what you can do at home. I think that combination of lightening the mood when everything feels so heavy and that empowering nature of being able to put something together in your house that looks beautiful is what makes this project significant. It helps you feel like you can do it in other things beyond the little artwork you’re imitating. I can do life. I can do this. I can do things I need to with what I have in my house. I can make it through this day, through this week, and be successful, and it’s going to be funny, and it’s going to be awe-inspiring.”