Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hands-On, Body-Engaged Learning

Recently I stopped in to see what was going on at an outdoor entertainment venue. I’m glad I had my camera, because what I thought would just be a quick look around became what can only be called staring. I realized that although people of all ages appeared to be enjoying themselves, the play environment seemed like a history park.

The area where I stopped was devoted to the experience of getting into something unusual and getting the feel of it. Here’s a wagon, or half of one, designed for photo ops. People couldn’t resist trying it on for size.

And here’s a dugout canoe that made me wonder of Lewis and Clark’s party had traded for something like this with the tribes along the Missouri River. While I stood there with my camera, the canoe was almost never empty!

You can see in this next shot that the space people enter is designed in several levels, even though it didn’t have to be. The visitor not only enters the space horizontally, but must ascend and descend to gain passage through it. There is no direct route. Yonder, near a replica Mississippi River boat, I saw children playing in the dirt by a simulated stream. Were they “panning for gold?” I didn’t get over there to find out.

And here, bordering this zone of play is an old-fashioned split-rail fence and a big windmill. What museum is this?

Not many paces beyond this area, I spotted parents and children of all ages enjoying some water jets that were clearly designed to be part of the hands-on experience of this place.

I started to see this environment with new eyes, the eyes of someone who’s trying to teach “visitor-centered thinking.” Here is an environment designed to absorb the energy of children and to gratify the adults who are hoping the kids will have a good time.

What history museum is this? It’s not! It’s a new learning environment at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. It is not only hands-on, but body-involved. I saw some kind of tree house that was accessible by a sturdy walkway. Under the tree house hung simulated “jungle vines” that children grabbed and swung on. On the other side of a walkway was a rope bridge between one tree and another, with rope mesh on the sides to prevent any falls. It was not a stable walk, and the instability tempted parents as well as kids.

A botanical garden is a prime example of a space that has traditionally served self-guided individuals and couples. In recent years, this garden has devoted enormous attention to the cultivation of tomorrow’s members and patrons. They have invested in family-friendly experiences that are physical, creative, social, and fun. All of this fun impinges not a bit on the self-guided people who are seeking the pleasures of seeing the ever-changing face of this planted environment.

If you are involved in a local museum or historic house, I hope you see something you can use in this photo-blog. Whether you sell cars or operate a museum, your most important product is a good memory. You’ve got to put the visitor’s experience at the center of your thinking. Museum work these days is not about your skill in displaying objects for self-guided learners. It is about your ability to translate everything you know about good hospitality to the cultivation of people’s interest.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Graphic Artist in the Garden

My long-term friend, David Watkins, was already a fine graphic designer when I knew him as an undergraduate at Penn State in the 60s. He married the love of his life, Susan, and moved to make a family, a life, and a career with her at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

That’s David a couple of weeks ago with his granddaughter, Lily. His garden has been a living work of graphic art as long as I’ve made the nearly-annual visits there with San.

This is a blog about David’s artistic gift, how he creates interest by the art of selecting and composing what is in the frame, for David is an art photographer, too, and we had gone to Ithaca for his big gallery opening there.

Outside, the “frame” is what is on the boundary of the residential lot. Within the lot, David has created a variety of garden beds near a large deck, so those beds have become the “frame” for human interaction on the deck. The beds themselves are framed by deck, lawn, and a pathway. There is reciprocity there. In the small zone where human space meets plant space, David has arranged potted plants as well as a small arrangement of smooth rocks. This part of the garden frame has more human presence than the part beyond it. See here, what you face while standing on the edge of the deck and look toward the slight rise to the back yard:

Shift perspective just a tad, and you see David’s eye for color, form, and texture capture your attention. Your eye is compelled into the center of the space by that beautiful rose purple coleus in that rustic-looking pot.

Ascend into the yard and look at that big lime-green hosta, and see how he “frames” the key feature with variety on one side – more kinds of potted coleus – and consistency on the lawn side – a border or silvery purple heucheras, not in pots but “grounded.” We are now in the zone of the yard.

Looking beyond this view, the visitor sees a steep slope down to a pathway that runs the length of the house out to the street. As the overhead canopy produced too much shade for daylilies, David converted the planting to a hosta gallery, each variety planted next to a dissimilar one, the whole bed tied together with large juniper bushes above and small begonias below, with a small border of hand-set stones to buffer the more austere texture of the poured concrete walkway.

Color, form, texture, composition: the elements of my friend's special talent. In the art gallery, those gifts produce wonderful evocations of what is magical in the zone where the natural meets the man-made. Here is a detail David noticed while visiting somewhere; some tulips drooping next to a plaster wall, like something you would see in a painting by one of the Dutch masters. He made the picture, cropped it to balance the flat surface above the flowers with the place where the wall's man-made curvature meets the natural floral curves, balanced the illumination just so….and it was breathtaking!

Here is a large photograph he printed on canvas rather than paper, a pond somewhere in Vermont, utterly simple as a graphic statement.

Finally, here is an example of graphic manipulation of the image to move along the path from realism toward abstraction. He has used computer software to subtract visual detail and enhance what remains, but not so much that you have left realism entirely. I have watched him work on images in his studio, tweaking this and that to see how it will affect the image, and finally settling on an array of choices that represent what the artist’s eye sought out.