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 credit: Kristin Becker

Kristin Becker Challenges Honors College Students to Live Life Through Art

By: Phyllis Shier, WSU Honors College,

Kristin Becker is familiar with teaching outside of her discipline. She taught digital technology and culture through an art and design lens for ten years before coming to WSU’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in 2020. “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,” said Becker, the museum’s Curator of Education and Programs.

Using the museum as her classroom, Becker teaches contemporary fine art from a humanities perspective in her Honors College course “Contextual Understanding in the Arts and Humanities.” The course introduces elements of art, art history, and curation with the goal of demonstrating how the arts inform and impact lives. It even provides students with opportunities to create art.

“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; I felt like it was something I was already always doing,” Becker said.

Even with her experience, the position provided new challenges. “They’re bringing a diverse range of interests to the classroom,” she said of the Honors College students. “It’s outside of my comfort zone to think about students who are studying STEM topics like engineering—especially students in the hard sciences—to see how they might relate to art in regard to their own worlds and their own day to day lives.”

Becker’s students, including those from her Honors course, contributed “Common Reading Connections labels” that help to curate the exhibit. Some of those are on display at the museum beginning this month in the “Here in a Homemade Forest: Common Reading Connections” exhibition which runs through March 9, 2024. The exhibition draws inspiration from the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and includes prints from the well-known Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts on the Umatilla Reservation in Pendleton, OR.

Becker, a printmaker herself, introduced Honors College students to relief printing using linocut, the process of cutting images or designs into a block of linoleum, leaving raised images to be inked. Their work was printed in WSU’s printmaking studio.

“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 that you’re not expecting!” she said. “We did printmaking last semester, partly because it was very relevant to the Keiko Hara exhibition that we had on view in the museum.”

The Hara exhibit ran until June 2023, overlapping with the course. Environmental concerns are a very big part of Kimmerer’s book, Becker said, 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.”

Becker first challenged students to write alternate labels for the Hara’s exhibit after they read Braiding Sweetgrass, connecting ideas from the book with Hara’s art.

“The book weaves together scientific ways of knowing and indigenous ways of knowing,” Becker said. After much research and many paragraphs, students winnowed their prose to its essence, garnering a better understanding of the work involved in the curation process.

Honors student labels in the current museum exhibition are from another project that connects to the common reading book, this one drawing from the museum’s permanent collection. Becker devoted about four class periods to the museum’s permanent collection storage where students chose from about twnty selected works for one piece each that they could relate to the book.

“They’re in the museum a lot and then they’re over in our permanent collection and it’s a very different experience,” Becker said. Without the benefit of curation, they were left to devise their own connections to the selected works. “The time that we’ve spent in the museum for most of the semester that is preparing them for thinking about the choice that they’re going to make and the way that they’re going to write about the work,” she said. For some students making those connections was quite personal.

“One of the important things that comes up in Braiding Sweetgrass is that you learn about the author’s history, and how her Native American ancestors were displaced multiple times and ended up very far from their original homelands on a reservation in Oklahoma,” Becker said. Kimmerer focuses on that loss of Native culture in her childhood and relearning it as an adult. Two of Becker’s students chose to write about similar experiences from their own families. 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 loved to have known more about while growing up. While they weren’t asked to reveal private history, combined material from the 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,” she said. “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 museum’s recent and current exhibits, Becker said, are at least in some part focused on social justice concerns. Access to visiting artists further enhances the cultural experiences the museum provides. Renowned artists like master printmaker and sculptor Alison Saar had an exhibition at the same time as a Black Lives Matter exhibition two years ago, and Jeffrey Gibson, an artist of Cherokee and Choctaw heritage and 2019 MacArthur Fellow, will visit this year.

“Those pressing social concerns in many ways are very present, I think, in our landscape, in our country right now,” Becker said. Last semester’s students also met with Juventino Aranda, who gave a public talk at the museum. “He’s a young artist who talks about searching for identity at the intersection of Mexico and of America, and about being second generation American,” Becker explained.

Both Aranda and Hara, a retired professor from Whitman College, live in the region and were able to visit the university multiple times. “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.

Becker hopes the art experiences of her students will continue to resonate with them. She plans to invite last semester’s students back to the museum for the current exhibition. “I’ll let them know and I hope they’ll come back,” she said. “I’m pretty excited that we were able to include some of them in this professional exhibition.”