Two weeks ago, late on a Wednesday afternoon, the students from the New Bedford Clemente program got onto a yellow school bus and made the hour trip to Boston to the Museum of Fine Arts. Many of them brought their children or a partner. I don’t think any of them had ever been to the museum. By 8:15, Mark Santow and I felt that they might be ready to leave. No, they said, they wanted to keep looking. They wanted to see everything.
A single mother from the class brought her small children, one, an infant, the other a four year old. The mother is one of the brightest students in the class. The little girl began to ask questions about the paintings, and when we told her the stories, and asked for her favorites, her shyness melted away. For the rest of the tour she held my hand. Her favorite was Degas' Little Dancer.
Two teenage boys came with another mother. 'I hate history,' the older one said, 'but I like coming to this museum.' His father is a fisherman, and I asked him whether he’d ever seen a shark like the one in Copley's Watson and the Shark in the American collection. Nope, he told us, but the water sometimes looks like that forty miles off the coast of New Bedford. He liked the rope wrapped around Watson's hand, and as we walked across the room, we discovered that Copley's painting of Boy with Squirrel had the same rhythmic line shaped by a gold chain wrapped around the boy's little finger and the pet squirrel's neck. Soon, students were making the shape with their hands, twirling imaginary lines through the air, a new kind of museum dance. This was a thrilling expression of full engagement with the art, and the students with one another.
I believe that the Clemente program, and the art history component that takes us deep into the reaches of aesthetic experience, gives us a new ground for engagement with one another. We rediscover what for many of us has been lost: a common ground of hope and trust that comes from searching for meaning together.
Thank you, David, and for all those who work to make this program possible. I have seen the transformative results again and again.
Clemente Program, New Bedford
Department of Art History and MFA Graduate Program Director