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Education Week: Art and the Humanities

College faculty explain how art helps us learn about the world around us.

Education Week at BYU lasted from August 21–25, 2023. Kenneth Hartvigsen, George Handley, and Sharon Harris each presented on how art enriches our world.

An Artist’s Love for the Land
By Garrett Gunnell

One man changed the BYU Museum of Art forever, and it all started over a shot of milk. Kenneth Hartvigsen (Curator of American Art) spoke at Education Week on August 24, where he discussed the man (Maynard Dixon) who changed the museum and how Dixon’s art and poetry changed the course of the museum’s history.

Lonesome Journey (1946) by Maynard Dixon

The story began in 1937, with then dean of commerce, Herald Clark. Clark wanted BYU to be recognized for excellence throughout the world, so he began collecting original artwork for BYU art students to observe and study firsthand. One day, he saw a Maynard Dixon piece in a magazine, and was so moved by it that he met with Maynard Dixon to buy every art piece Dixon created. Dixon agreed, and, as was custom for a gentleman’s agreement at the time, the two men made the deal over a shot in a bar. Dixon took a shot of his favorite liquor, and Clark took a shot of milk. That day marked the beginning of BYU’s identity as a collecting institution, which continues on today through the Museum of Art. The museum constantly cycles through new, original artwork; however, Maynard Dixon’s collection remains on display.

Curators of both past and present greatly respect Dixon’s work, not just for its artistic genius, but for the impact it had on the Museum of Art. When Kenneth Hartvigsen became curator, he watched as students would observe Dixon’s art and later bring their friends to view the pieces as well. Hartvigsen recalled these memories as prime examples of how art influences the observers, saying, “[Dixon] allows us to continue to find new meaning, new possibilities in his work, even if we feel like we’ve seen them before.”

Discover the art on display in the BYU Museum of Art.

Seeing Stewardship Through an Artistic Lens
By Emma Rostrom

In the beginning God created the earth—and humanity now bears the responsibility to care for it. During his Education Week presentation on August 24, 2023, Professor George Handley (Literature of the Americas, Ecotheology) taught that connection to the natural world is one of the best ways to gain spiritual awareness and emphasized that contemporary environmental art can help create that connection.

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Stewardship over the earth began with Adam and Eve’s task to dress and keep the Garden of Eden. The ongoing spiritual relationship between humans and nature looks different than it once did, since climate change and other challenges now threaten nature more than ever before. Speaking on current environmental crises throughout the world, Handley said, “We need some help. Where's that help going to come from? It can come from the power of stories and of poems and the arts to help us to awaken our sense of awareness.”

To illustrate his point, Handley shared several poems, films, and paintings with environmental connotations. One such poem, “The Chance to Love Everything” by Mary Oliver, describes a moment in which a camper catches a glimpse of a retreating bear in the woods. Handley reflected on the camper’s awe as they experience a brief but powerful connection to another living creature.

He also played clips from the movie Noah, a film about the Great Flood of the Bible. Handley likened the prophet Noah’s acceptance of building the ark, which ultimately preserved God’s creations from extinction, to our current need to embrace our stewardship of the earth and extend love to those around us.

Handley’s examples and other contemporary environmental art pieces convey the spiritual principle of being attentive to the miracle of the present—the miracle of humanity’s very existence on this planet. Handley said, “We need to remember our mortality constantly. And we cannot take it for granted that Christ gave us eternal life . . . so reminders that we're mortal can do us some tremendous spiritual good."

Making Easter Our Greatest Festival
by Garrett Gunnell

Culturally, we might not often associate the word “festival” with Easter, but Assistant Professor Sharon Harris (Music and Literature in 17th-Century England) argues that Easter should be our greatest festival. In her August 22, 2023, Education Week presentation, Harris called for a change in the way we celebrate the most important event in history. Quoting New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, she said, “We should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways.” According to Harris, one of these creative ways can involve reading Easter-related poetry. She shared several Easter poems, pointing out that the layered, complex nature of poetry allows readers to gain a deeper understanding of Christ and His Atonement, thereby enriching the Easter celebration.

Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

One of the Easter poems Harris shared, “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” explored the idea of witnessing the Crucifixion. The author, John Donne, prompts the reader to consider whether they would be able to stand watching Christ suffer through all He did. In explicit detail, the poem’s narrator explains that he could not stand to watch Christ’s blood turn the dirt below the cross into mud or see Mary witness her son’s torture. At the conclusion of the poem, Donne touches on themes of grace, repentance, and mercy, but he still leaves the ending open to interpretation. Harris explained how this poem may prompt readers to consider aspects of the Crucifixion that they might have previously overlooked. As they contemplate whether they could stand to witness the Crucifixion, they can understand the pain Christ suffered for them on a deeper level.

Harris shared her most memorable Easter experience: visiting the garden tomb in Conrad Schick St, Jerusalem, the theorized location of Jesus’ resurrection. Conveniently, the tomb was deserted when Harris and her friends arrived, so they took the opportunity to sit, sing songs, and recite poems together. Harris said, “There's so much beauty and insight and testimony and intimacy with God to be gained by surrounding ourselves with poetry and art and making Easter our greatest festival.”

Learn more about Education Week.