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Lessons on How Artists Shape Art, History and Society

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O’Dowd faculty and staff embrace opportunities for furthering their education during summer travels, and they often share their new-found knowledge with our students.

This past summer, Assistant Director of Student Activities Marguerite Green and social studies teacher Tony Green took a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, visiting museums and various historical sights.

An art lover, Marguerite was impressed by an exhibit in one of the museums featuring pottery created by enslaved potter Dave Drake, who boldly signed and dated much of his work and even inscribed it with bible and or poetic verses in a prominent place. Laws at that time prohibited educating slaves, so it was unusual that Drake learned to read and write and could inscribe his work. Most other enslaved potters signed their pieces with an “X” in a less visible location, generally on the underside of the piece.

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Marguerite shared what she learned about Drake and other African American artisans including, ironworker Philip Simmons, known for his unique and intricate tight scroll work, and Marilyn Dingle, who sews sweetgrass baskets, with Chris Roscoe’s Ceramics I class on August 23.

“To me anything that is created by a man or a woman’s hand is like a little miracle,” she said.

Roscoe was appreciative of Marguerite’s willingness to share her experiences with his class, as she pointed out how artists – many of them unknown figures – have shaped art, history and society.

During her presentation, Marguerite showed students photos of weaving looms that were used to make blankets, many of which were used for ceremonial events like births and weddings, and brought a selection of items – baskets and artwork – that she had purchased on her trip. She actually met Dingle and received a mini lesson on basket sewing and saw the ancestral and current handmade tools used to craft the baskets.

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“Ms. Green’s presentation brings our attention to the handicrafts and art of the American South and the personal connections, history and importance of art in daily life, both our lives and the lives of people hundreds of years ago,” he said.

“The students were fascinated by her stories, and by the artwork she passed around and shared with us. Ms. Green also shared her excitement about art and history which was valuable for the students,” Roscoe added. “And she showed us that the artists and craftspeople of the South can not only make a livelihood creating arts/crafts but, more importantly, keep the vibrant traditions, techniques and history alive and pass it on to the next generation.”

Ceramics students were struck by how art provides a glimpse into history.

“I liked seeing the images of artwork from Ms. Green’s PowerPoint and hearing her give historical context about the pieces and really wanting us to understand the stories behind them. I really liked it when she said in art there is no such thing as failure. That gave me motivation this semester for sure in ceramics,” Naeem Ward ’18 said.

Claudine Ronquillo ’18 was particularly impressed by the sweetgrass baskets, as each one had such a detailed, unique pattern. “This is such a beautiful tradition that enslaved African Americans held close to their heart,” she said.

The images in the paintings touched Trinity Cooper ’20, as she felt this artwork captured history in its purest form.


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