Thursday, May 17, 2012

The John Hoover sculpture and Visual Learning Strategy

Mark Auslander writes: We are delighted that the 1971 sculpture by the Aleut artist John Hoover, "Man who married an eagle" has been installed in the lobby of the Museum of Culture and Environment. How might we effectively use Visual Learning Strategy (VLS) to engage museum visitors of different ages with this striking work? In VLS, the goal is not to lecture on an art work, but rather to engage visitors so that they discover key components of the art and develop, as much as on their own as possible, credible lines of interpretation and understanding.

 This could easily be a 15-30 minute session of Close Looking at the art work; although for younger viewers a lot can be accomplished in five minutes.

 I think it might be helpful if the guide/facilitator had in a folder the following color images in large format, to be used at various parts of the session:

 1. A photograph of the way the John Hoover sculpture looks when the hinged doors are closed

 2. A photograph of a Northwest Coast transformation mask looks when it is closed

 3. A photograph of a Northwest Coast transformation masks looks when it is opened up.

 4. Photographs of one of more Medieval Euoropean triptychs, such as the famous early 15th century Beffi triptych shown below.

 But don't show these images immediately, since the goal is first to get viewers to discover as much about the John Hoover as they can by looking at it carefully.

 An immediate challenge is the work, a kind of triptych, is displayed in the case opened up, so visitors must initially be asked to use their imagination to envision what it would look like closed up, if the two outer hinged doors were brought together.

To figure this out visitors will need to look at the mirrored backs of the case, and discern that there are, on the exterior of each door, two eagle heads pointing downwards, so that when the doors are closed a total of four eagles are pointing downwards. It might be helpful after that exercise for the guide/facilitator to share the photograph of the closed doors with the group. Then the guide could ask the group how does everything change once the doors are opened up: what precisely do we see now? Please describe everything you see. Most visitors will immediately describe the large elongated human face in the center, and some will see the smaller human face at the very top.
Visitors also should figure out that just on the other side of the doors (that had eagle heads on the outside) are now multiple human figures atop one another. Visitors may need some prompting to discern that in the lower center part of the image are two eagle head profiles now facing upwards. Perhaps the guide could ask: Can anyone find any eagle heads on the inside? At this point, it might be helpful to introduce the title of the work, "The Man who Married an Eagle" and explain the work is named for a sacred story told by the Haida and Tlingit First Nation peoples of the Northwest Coast. Perhaps ask: why does this art work change, from the way it looks when the doors are closed, to the way it looks when the doors are opened? If that elicits now response, perhaps ask: What might the artist want us to discover once we open up the doors? Or 'what does he want us to discover about the spirit of the Eagle"?

Perhaps someone will say: He wants us to learn that the Eagle doesn't just look like a bird. The eagle can also look like a person?

It might also be helpful at this point, to introduce something about the sacred beliefs of the tribal peoples of the Northwest Coast, that shamans or spiritual leaders are believed to send their souls on spirit journeys between the realms of humans and animal spirits, to see a deep reality in which human and animal are deeply interconnected. Does this work of art teach us something about these sacred beliefs? Perhaps a visitor see the the work as showing the spirit of Eagle transforming back and forth between its human and animal forms. Perhaps at this point, the guide could introduce something about Northwest Coast transformation masks, which are opened up during ceremonial dances to show the inner nature of a sacred spirit: often a bird-like outer mask is opened up to show a human like face within.

 It might be useful for the guide to then show the pictures of the traditional transformation mask.

First a version of the closed mask, such as the Kwakiutl mask, on the left.

And then share the photograph showing the Mask when it is opened up, displaying the painting of Sisiutl, the two head serpent, with a humanoid face in the center.

Then ask: How is John Hoover's sculpture like and unlike the traditional transformation mask? It might be useful to have a visitor reading aloud the John Hoover quote on the south side of the column: "“Shamans were the first psychologists who influenced through art the workings of Good and Evil Spirits. The idea of Spirit Helpers, the close relationship between man, animal, nature is real and meaningful to me, and like the Shaman’s of old, I try to make Healing images for the Soul.” Ask: How might this art work show is the close relationship between man, animal and nature? How might this piece be said to be a "Healing image for the soul"? Older visitors may wish to spend some time pondering the Sacred Story of "The Man who married an Eagle", recorded in Wrangell Alaska in the early 20th century, printed out on the north side of the column. How does the art work illustrate, in effect, parts of this sacred story? Then one could ask: is the artist also inspired by Western religious art, in addition to Native American spiritul traditions? At this point the guide could one or more examples of Western religious triptychs, for instance the early 15th century Beffi Triptych which is centered on the Madonna and Christ Child, and flanked by two doors depicting events from the life of Jesus.
It might be especially nice to find an image of Russian triptychs, since the artist John Hoover was partly Russian, and may have been directly encountered by aspects of the Russian Orthodox iconographic tradition. Ask visitors: how is the Hoover sculpture like the medieval western triptychs? How is it different from those triptychs? At the end, try to get viewers to sum up what they have learned: What sources did this artist rely on? What changes when we open up the piece, and what do we discover? What have learned about how artists use their sources? It might be helpful to note that artists copy early works, but also change them. Art is always evolving. Also, it might be helpful to note that for complex, spiritually-rich works of art, there are no simply ways of 'decoding' the work. Each of us has to discover mysteries in front of us, by look carefully at the work, and uncovering what we feel the work is trying to tell us. In the Comments section below, please list questions or strategies might you suggest, as we ask our visitors to contemplate the John Hoover sculpture.


  1. There's a lovely video interview with the late John Hoover, showing a good deal of his beautiful work, at:
    (This could be played on the screen in the Museum lobby at the conclusion of the VLS session)

  2. In some VLS sessions, we have asked younger visitors to pair off and look quietly and closely at one another, to decide what the other person's "Spirit Animal" might be. Some visitors take this exercise very seriously and come up with really interesting animals. If time permits, we could ask each child to draw the spirit animal they discern in their partner.