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.
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.
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.