WRIGHT — It takes about 90 minutes to drive from Cottonwood Elementary School to the closest art museum.
But for one day earlier this month, lithographs and glass etchings that might normally hang in an urban gallery adorned the school in this coal mining town.
Portable walls filled with framed art greeted students as they walked into a classroom transformed into a gallery. The fourth-graders strolled past original art prints depicting architecture from around the world. A wall in white letters read “Art and Architecture: Metaphors in Space.”
“It looks like a mini-museum,” one student said.
It’s supposed to, Sarita Talusani Keller replied. She drove the Ann Simpson Artmobile van from the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie to Wright, a blue-collar town of less than 2,000 that sits near two of the largest coal mines in the country.
Talusani Keller travels the state sharing museum-quality art in communities where residents often have little access to original works.
As the Ann Simpson Artmobile Educator, she leads a discussion tailored to each audience, whether it’s a classroom, retirement home, library, community center or correctional facility. The Artmobile travels anywhere people want to see and learn about art, she said. The programs she designs typically culminate in a hands-on art session.
“I want to be able to bring them something outside of their world that helps them look more closely at their world,” she said.
Exhibition on wheels
The students looked at etchings, lithographs, color aquatint and other types of prints. Then they sat in front of a lithograph depicting a tall, monumental structure.
Talusani Keller asked the students what each artwork has in common. The answer: each depicted architecture.
Artists and architects design buildings to create a feeling and atmosphere for activities that take place in them, Talusani Keller said. So she wanted to know how the images made the students feel.
The students guessed and talked about the structure, which turned out to be a pylon of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Students compared the structure to a tower and thought the artist conveyed a feeling of size, intrigue and “wow,” as one student described it.
“So this is a metaphor for American achievement, for this excitement, this technology,” Talusani Keller said.
The students next sat in front of a large etching and described arches in the ceiling, sculpted columns and artwork around the interior space.
Students described feelings of reverence and honor as they mused about activities the space could be for, like weddings, funerals or a museum. Some thought it was a place they’d better wear something nice to.
“I see maybe like a church or a ballroom,” one girl said. “The arches make it feel like it’s somewhere holy or somewhere people will worship, because it feels elegant.”’
“All of you were right, because you talked about a place that’s special and something ceremonial,” Talusani Keller said.
“Art and Architecture: Metaphors in Space” is the Artmobile’s current exhibition traveling the state. It features 17 original prints from the University of Wyoming Art Museum’s permanent collection.
The students were so excited by the art that Talusani Keller had to remind a couple of them to point to details without actually touching the works.
“I think it’s that sense of awe being around the actual piece not a reproduction, not something that’s on a computer,” she said. “It’s something that the artist actually touched. They get to be around something that the artists actually worked over or breathed on.”
The Artmobile teaches students about more than art.
The Ann Simpson Artmobile brought a special STE(A)M (science, technology, engineering, art and math) program tailored for third and fourth grades to Cottonwood and a school in Gillette.
Students learned how artists create a feeling as well as how creativity is used in a different way: to problem-solve ways to build the structures that artists and architects design.
The Cottonwood fourth-graders split the session between the Artmobile’s exhibition and talking about engineering with Teddi Freedman, the K-14 project coordinator for the University of Wyoming’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.
In a classroom with Freedman, the students talked about things designed by engineers, like desks, bicycles, computers, cars, mining equipment and even headache medicine.
Whether they’re mechanical or chemical engineers, they all have something in common.
“Imagination! Right?” Freedman told the class. “You have to have an imagination and you have to use creativity to come up with possible solutions to something.”
Later the educators set students loose with cardboard, pipe cleaners, tape, egg cartons, plastic cups and bottles. A teacher ran the “welding station” with a hot glue gun. The students used concepts from the sessions in a “design challenge” to build models of their own ideas for an addition to their school.
One group created a gym in a separate space from the cafeteria and designed it for every athletic activity and all abilities. Another redesigned the whole building into a circular shape.
The Artmobile lessons can also delve into subjects ranging from math and philosophy to literature and history.
For instance, the class could have discussed the history of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge — a Works Progress Administration project built during the Great Depression, Talusani Keller said.
“It’s sort of a survey of history when you think about all of these structures,” Talusani Keller said. “Every one of these has a story.”
During typical sessions, students spend more time with the art and a “deep looking” activity to delve into their own thoughts and responses, she said.
People don’t have to be artists, architects or engineers to use the lessons from the Artmobile exhibitions. The Wright students, for example, may one day use what they learned on a city board erecting a building or to cast a vote for a project in their town.
“We’re bringing in art from architecture from all over the place,” Talusani Keller said. “But I hope that it helps them look at the world right around them and see that they have power to make things happen.”
Art roams Wyoming
When Talusani Keller read about the Artmobile educator job, she thought it sounded too good to be true. She started in March as the first full-time educator for the Artmobile, said Katie Christensen, the UW Art Museum’s curator of education and statewide engagement.
“It’s really in line with what we do in-house at the museum: the idea that the museum is a classroom for everyone,” Christensen said. “So this is our chance to kind of take it on the road and impact even more people.”
Talusani Keller arrived from Houston with experience teaching elementary school and at the University of Houston as well as driving art cars. She earned her doctorate degree in art education with a focus on community arts and engagement from the University of North Texas.
Besides developing programs for the Artmobile, she’ll work with the UW Art Museum staff to create the next exhibition. Past exhibitions have included surrealism, abstract art and botanical themes, Christensen said. The Artmobile reaches about 6,000 to 7,000 people a year.
“So it’s a way to access and celebrate this kind of treasure that we have in the state,” she said.
Sen. Alan Simpson’s wife, Ann Simpson, spearheaded the program in 1982 and later an endowment to fund the program with an educator, Christensen said. There are similar programs in other parts of the country, but the Artmobile is unique because it uses portable panels that can travel in a van and be set up anywhere that’s protected from the elements, she said.
“That means we have the ability to access really, truly under-served communities, so the teeny, tiny places like Etna, Wyoming to places like the Women’s Center in Lusk,” she said.
Back in Wright, the program wrapped up after about two hours. Students filed out of the portable gallery and back into class.
One girl paused for a moment as she was leaving.
“I think this just make me love art a lot more,” she said.
Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner