Kristin Becker challenges Honors College students to live life through art

Walla Walla artist Keiko Hara works with a WSU student.
Students from Kristin Becker’s Honors 280 course work with Walla Walla artist Keiko Hara making and printing with stencils in the Fine Arts Printmaking Studio (photo by Kristin Becker).

Kristin Becker, education and programs curator at WSU’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, introduces art, art history, and curation to Honors College students using the museum as her classroom. Her novel approach to teaching “Contextual Understanding in the Arts and Humanities” shows how the arts inform and impact lives from an humanities perspective. 

“It made a lot of sense to teach the humanities section with that focus; it happened very naturally once I kind of understood what the overarching goals for the course were… it was something I was already always doing,” said Becker who has taught the course twice now. Prior to that she taught digital technology and culture for 10 years with a focus on art and design. “It was really valuable to me as an instructor teaching in the digital realm to think about my fine art training and to try to relate it to what I was teaching to the students about technology.”

“Our vision for the new museum has always been to create an interdisciplinary learning environment where access to exhibitions, collections, and artists brings the campus community together,” said Ryan Hardesty, Executive Director and Curator of Exhibitions & Collections.

The transition to teaching an Honors course provided Becker with a fresh challenge; teaching students from diverse academic backgrounds. “It’s outside of my comfort zone to think about students who are studying STEM topics like engineering…to see how they might relate to art in regard to… their own day to day lives,” Becker said. 

Students made “alternate labels” for museum exhibits to understand the curation process. Their labels focused on the art while also drawing connections from the Common Reading book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Some student labels curate the museum’s current exhibition, “Here in a Homemade Forest: Common Reading Connections.” 

Becker challenged students to create labels that connected ideas from the book with last year’s Keiko Hara museum exhibit. “The book weaves together scientific ways of knowing and indigenous ways of knowing,” Becker said. Both concerns are a very big part of Kimmerer’s book and of Hara’s work. “Keiko Hara is very influenced by a strong connection to landscape and place and that’s made very clear in the exhibit’s labels; the idea about how place affects us—how it holds stories and history.” 

Museum exhibits also focus on social justice concerns, so some students focused there, making alternate labels that were quite personal. Becker recounted how one student’s great great grandfather was incarcerated in Hawaii during WWII, an experience that led to his family hiding their Japanese history. Another student related how it felt to learn about his Jewish heritage only after his grandfather had died, something he would have wanted to know earlier. Students weren’t asked to reveal private history, but Kimmerer’s book and the Hara exhibit resonated. 

“Those two examples made me cry,” Becker said. “They had the option to choose many things, and they chose to write about those difficult, difficult experiences. There was a connection to the art and what they learned about the artists, but also to the subject matter of the book that they were being asked to write about; they were obviously being thoughtful and making connections.” 

The Honors course also provided opportunities to create art. Trained as a printmaker, Becker introduced last semester’s students to relief printing using linocut, cutting images or designs into a block of linoleum, leaving raised images to be inked. “They’re different in the studio space,” Becker said of her students. “You see them come to life in a different way, working with messy materials like ink; some people come out of their shells in ways you’re not expecting!” 

Visiting artists also provide cultural outreach. “One of the great things that we do is we bring in artists from all over the country; that’s a good opportunity for the students and the community here to engage with those artists,” Becker said.

“Kristin has been brilliant in her use of the museum to create an alternative classroom, introducing students to art as a bridge across fields, which deepens understanding and self-reflection,” Hardesty added. 

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