On a Friday morning this past summer, I hopped on the “boneshaker” (my rusty, found bike), traced along Salem harbor, past Old Burying Point, up the bamboo-lined path to my summer writing classroom: the Peabody Essex Museum. I met my students and our fabulous docents, Alyce and Alexis, in the Atrium below the commanding Fabergé Revealed banner. Some students were bright-eyed, decked-out in lace dresses and heels, while others yawned and shuffled along, clutching their black sketchbooks.
As part of a special collaboration between Salem State University’s Summer Bridge Academy and the Peabody Essex Museum, our writing class centered on critical thinking through visual analysis. Led through the exhibits and galleries by our docents, students were assigned writing prompts and engaging activities. Ultimately students wrote essays describing, comparing, and analyzing art, culminating in a research paper inspired by their weekly PEM visits. Together, they interpreted emotion and message in paintings featured within In Conversation: Modern African American Art (my absolute favorite), examined symbolism in Dutch self-portraits featured in the Van Otterloo collection and sketched (and gushed) in the dimly-lit Fabergé show.
As they began to practice a slow kind of looking, I noticed students appeared visibly calmer as they sketched and questioned each other in the galleries. Final research topics ranged from the legend of John Henry and the legacy of Lois Mailou Jones to the visual effects of Nick Cave’s mesmerizing Soundsuits. One interesting paper, cleverly titled “The Original Kennedys,” focused on the influence and philanthropy of Salem’s Saltonstall Family.
Most astonishing to me was the giddy excitement and anticipation students expressed over the czarist bling made by Fabergé. After learning a bit about the history of the decadent Romanov family, I felt conflicted about their enthusiasm. Our docent, Alyce, thoughtfully reminded us that despite any judgments we may have about the values behind such opulence and material indulgence, the objects themselves are truly beautiful and that such craftsmanship alone is worthy of admiration.
Fast forward to the present (I drive to school now, the frenzied mornings of the fall semester are too trafficy to bike) where my path often crosses with one particularly inspiring summer student, Anthony. After an underwhelming start in my summer class, Anthony came to life after his encounter with Civil Rights photographer Gordon Parks. His research project on Parks was voted “best presentation” by his peers, and I gave him the achievement award for our class at the formal awards banquet, attended by Salem State University President Meservy. His friends howled for him as he strode up shyly to accept.
One morning, during a fire drill, our building emptied out into the misty parking lot. I spotted Anthony, one of his neon oversized headphones askew, sitting atop his shaved head. He waved hello, and ran over. “So Anthony,” I asked, “what was your favorite exhibit from the PEM this summer?” He smiled, and I knew the answer as I saw his lips forming his final word, “Definitely, definitely…. Fabergé.”
Kerrianne Pearson teaches English Literature and Composition at Salem State University.