If someone gave you an item from the past and asked you to identify where it came from and how it was used, where would you start?
This is the challenge students took on in the courses Art of the Americas and Art of Mesoamerica. Dr. Billie Follensbee assigned objects to each student, charging them to use careful research, contextualization and critical thinking to identify the items. The students’ research then became the subject of the exhibit Native Art of the Americas.
“I’m fascinated by old things.”
For student Macaylah Gant-Hodge, these projects merged a few interests.
“I’m fascinated by old things,” Macaylah says. “I collect old books. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s 100 years old or older, I’ll probably buy it.”
To successfully complete her assignments, she read a variety of texts on Native American and Mesoamerican culture and history.
“In my projects for Dr. Follensbee, I have to explore research from many different sources so that I can compile it into one, cohesive understanding,” Macaylah says.
“Sometimes you find a source that’s pure gold, exactly what you’re looking for. And sometimes you go through hundreds of pages of a book and don’t find the information you need. So you just have to keep at it.”
Macaylah developed a process of note taking and record keeping, which helped her synthesize huge amounts of information and resolve conflicts among sources.
“Of course, you always have to use the magic words: ‘maybe,’ ‘possibly,’ ‘seems to be,’ ‘appears to be,'” Macaylah says. “Then, piecing together how the items were found (in addition to the nature of the items themselves) provides clues about how they might have been used.”
And finally putting all the pieces together felt great. Macaylah says, “At the end of the semester, I was like, ‘I actually figured it out.’ It was the best feeling in the world. I sent Dr. Follensbee an email, and she replied: ‘I knew you could do it.'”
“I’m not content to sit inside a box.”
Since Macaylah’s minor in museum studies requires such firm commitment to historical fact, it may seem like a surprising fit with her creative writing major. But Macaylah, who has been writing poetry since she was 12, believes the fields inform each other.
“Sometimes art history makes me think about things differently. This semester, I came across a photo of an abandoned church, and I started wondering what story this place might hold. I kind of lived with it for a while and ultimately wrote a poem about it,” she says.
“I think it must have been influenced by my work in art history. I have to look at objects all the time and try to figure out what story they have, what role did they play in the culture.”
Although the scholarly work of her art history classes compels her to keep her creative instincts in check, her ability to imagine and empathize with characters helps her solve research puzzles. “I’ll ask myself, ‘Who is the person that used this?’ Sometimes starting with that idea of a character helps me understand.”
And both disciplines feed Macaylah’s drive to know more about our world. “I’m not content to sit inside a box,” she says. “I enjoy seeing all the different perspectives.”