Art as a Conversation Starter

CATEGORIES: February 2020
"Dolores, a Warrior for All Living Beings” 2018 by Favianna Rodriuez (American, b. 1978)


“When you look at this image, what do you see?” asks Michèle Schaal, associate professor of French and women’s and gender studies in the Department of World Languages and Cultures (WLC). Perhaps you see the human figure first. Or maybe the blue deer or the globe jump out at you. Or do the bright colors make more of an impression than any particular shape or form? “Each person is different. Each person brings their own life experience to art just the same way each artist brings their own culture and standpoint to their work,” Schaal adds. According to her, art is a great conversation starter across cultures, across places, and even across time.

“Art transcends borders while maintaining its cultural specificity. It is integral in creating cross-cultural conversations. And that’s what our department is about: educating global citizens that are literate in diverse cultures other than their own.”


She then goes on to explain that the gicleé print we are looking at, “Dolores, a Warrior for All Living Beings” by Favianna Rodríguez, is a gift to the ISU University Museums from Women in French, a scholarly organization to which Schaal belongs. “Dolores” also serves as the cover art for a semester-long exhibit at the Christian Petersen Art Museum entitled “Creating Global Understanding.” Schaal initiated the project and co-curated the exhibition. The joint effort between the University Museums and the WLC is free and open to the public now through July 2020.


About the exhibit
The collaborative exhibit features pieces from the university’s vast collection selected by WLC faculty members for reflection. Their perspectives and thoughts are displayed alongside the works of art to invite the viewer to delve into their own response. For example, Professor Beth Martin uses a set of traditional German wedding cups to spark an exploration of the various “skills tests” that some German-speaking cultures once used to determine a young couple’s readiness for marriage. Professor of Chinese Aili Mu gives a reflection on poetry and calligraphy sparked by a set of four hanging scrolls by Shuxin Zheng.


Art as a tool
This practice of using art to inspire reflection and conversation is very familiar to Schaal’s students. As a self-avowed art lover, Schaal has been bringing art into her classroom and her classes into museums since she first came to Iowa State. She often has her students write papers on their own personal reflections and responses to art.

For example, the final exam for the French 302 – Reading and Writing French class is titled “Le musée est à moi!” or “the museum is mine!” Students select French art from the ISU Museums collections and, on the exam day, the ISU Museums staff sets up a mini exhibit–typically at the Christian Petersen Museum–where the students present, in French, the selected objects to their classmates.

Professor Schaal and students from French 302.

The Christian Petersen Museum will be hosting several informal lunchtime gallery chats and a more formal roundtable event during the course of the “Creating Global Understanding” exhibit.  For a full slate of events, go to the Christian Petersen Museum website.