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An Artful Endeavor

Art kits based on Wanda Gag’s work teach art concepts and their wider context

October 31, 2010
The Journal

NEW ULM - A remarkable new art education series will likely go beyond rekindling interest in Wanda Gag's work.

The project - beautifully executed by researcher and writer Sue Ullery and graphic designer Ian Laird - teaches art concepts and explores their wider cultural and social context.

Organized in the form of a large artist's portfolio, with six differently-themed "explorations," or lessons, the kits can be borrowed by art teachers and others - a valuable curriculum resource available free of charge that both re-enforces and transcends local connections.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Kremi Spengler

Researcher and Writer Sue Ullery explains a new art education series based on Wanda Gag’s work.

Project history

and background

The City of New Ulm came to own a collection of Gag's artwork shortly after Wanda's death in 1946. A local branch of the American Association of University Women had been organized earlier that year, and its members were looking for a worthy service project. The AAUW chapter decided on collecting pieces of Gag's work and organizing a traveling exhibition. It hoped to raise awareness of Gag's contributions to art and literature.

After meeting with Gag's husband Earle Humphreys and extensive fundraising, the AAUW bought eight engravings and 22 lithographs. They were matted and framed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. These works, along with 10 copies of Gag's children's books, a zinc plate and a wood cut, made up the AAUW's traveling exhibition. The exhibition opened at the Brown County Historical Society Museum (then in the lower-level of the original New Ulm Library building on First North and Broadway Streets) in November 1948. The exhibition travelled to 18 venues in Minnesota and around the country, and was seen by more than 15,000 people.

The art collection, which grew to 59 original pieces, was then donated to the New Ulm Public Library (under the auspices of the New Ulm City Council) where it was stored for nearly 50 years. In 1998, a committee was formed to preserve, protect, restore and promote the collection. It was comprised of representatives of the City of New Ulm, the Brown County Historical Society and the Wanda Gag House Association, along with Gag's nephew, Gary Harm. Over the following 10 years, all the works were restored and matted with funds from grants, donations and allocations from the City of New Ulm.

A mini traveling exhibition of selected reproductions from the collection was prepared and debuted at the New Ulm City Hall in February 2008. It is available for display at public venues at no charge.

The new art education series is another step in the attempt to bring an awareness of Gag's art and literature to the children of New Ulm area.

The art education series has been funded by allocations by the City of New Ulm and a grant from the New Ulm Area Foundation under the direction of the Wanda Gag City of New Ulm Art Collection Committee.

The Wanda Gag Artist Exploration

Education Series:

an inter-discipline approach at work

The goal of the series is to provide access to information and curriculum presentation ideas to teachers, media specialists, librarians, youth organization leaders and other community members about Gag.

Ullery, a long-term presenter of the comparable Art Adventure series developed by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, modeled the local project after the Art Adventure concept. ("Only, ours is better," she chuckled.)

The local series was created so that children can learn about the influences in Gag's life, from her early life in New Ulm through the years of her professional career. It links up to, and explores, a variety of relevant frameworks and contexts - drawing inter-disciplinary connections. Ullery quotes examples such as the 1920s, feminism, the 1930s, the Great Depression, the WPA, World War II...

The series introduces students to Gag's artistic styles and techniques, as well as those of other artists. It also seeks to familiarize students with the innovations Gag introduced in her children's books.

Through comparing styles and techniques, the children can learn about art theory concepts. The students are given the opportunity, through an inquiry, or questioning, style of presentation, to discover for themselves how best to view and experience art. They can practice what they have learned in a hands-on activity suggested within each session.

The Wanda Gag Artist Exploration

Education Series: an 'operating manual'

The series is divided into six "Artist Exploration" sessions. Each session features several pieces of Gag's art works or books, chosen to highlight a focus. The artworks are reproduced in a large format for easy viewing.

Supplementary materials and props are identified for each Artist Exploration. They include photographs, hands-on items such as art supplies and tools (a piece of wood block, a zinc matrix, a lithographic crayon), reproductions of other artists' paintings for comparison, and other similar items.

Each Artist Exploration has been reproduced in a sturdy flip-book format which can be referenced during the presentation. Each flip book lists the focus of the exploration, the artwork featured in that exploration, and the props and supplementary materials to be used during the exploration.

The sessions are divided into sections, with headings such as "Let's Talk," "Let's Explore Art" and "Let's Do an Activity." Each card has a suggested method of presenting the information, using a questioning style (asking open-ended questions to allow students to think harder and make discoveries for themselves). These questions can be modified based on the students' ages, interests and available time. Each Artist Exploration integrates the props and supplementary materials at the appropriate time. The props may be passed around during the presentation, or they may be offered to the students to touch at the end of the session.

The series can be used as written, in a chronological order, or it may be adapted for use as needed.

Two complete kits, or portfolios, have been produced at this time.

The series is also available in an alternate, electronic format. All images can be projected using traditional projectors or SmartBoards.

Ullery's research is comprehensive and her writing clear and professional.

Laird's graphic design is imaginative, simple, edgy; matching the character of the series.

The series was printed locally, at the Martin Luther College print shop.

The work took about two years to complete.

The first viewing of the portfolios, by the New Ulm City Council and Gag collection committee members and enthusiasts including Gag family member Dolly Harm, was reportedly an unqualified success (and brought tears to Harm's eyes).

It is still under consideration where the kits will be stored (and from which venue they will be available for check-out). Some possibilities include the New Ulm Public Library, the Brown County Historical Society Museum and City Hall.

Source: Wanda Gag Art Exploration Series Guide; Sue Ullery interview with Kremi Spengler



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