Professional storyteller explores YCBA collection through visual literacy in ‘Artful Tales’
In short videos uploaded to the Yale Center for British Art's website, Tom Lee weaves stories inspired by images in selected paintings.
Courtesy of the YCBA
The Yale Center for British Art “Artful Tales” video series, part of its “at home: Learning Resources” series, explores paintings from the center’s collections through visual literacy strategies, storytelling and other learning resources.
In “Artful Tales,” professional storyteller Tom Lee weaves tales inspired by selected paintings from the center’s collection and walks listeners through educational exercises developed by visual literacy specialist Patricia Darragh. Last week, the center released a nine-minute video in which Lee connects English painter Frank Holl’s 19th-century painting “Peeling Potatoes” to Joseph Jacobs’ 1890 folklore tale “Master of all Masters.” In previous videos, Lee connects John Constable’s painting “Stratford Mill” to the story “Peanut, the Story of a Boy” by Albert Paine, and tells the “Tale of Taliesin” by referencing John Martin’s painting “The Bard.”
“Visual literacy is the idea that you can explore an artwork as a visual text,” Lee told the News. “That is to say, [through visual literacy] you can train yourself to really, really slow down and ask questions of yourself and the artwork and enter into a dialogue with the artwork. I’ve had wonderful success and a great deal of pleasure using these strategies, particularly with students.”
Lee works with YCBA Head of Education Linda Friedlaender, Darragh and English professor at the University of Connecticut James Shivers to lead the “Summer Teacher Institute,” a free four-day program offered by the YCBA to help teachers implement visual literacy into their curricula. Lee has also worked as a teaching artist at the YCBA School Partnership Program for 15 years. The program provides an opportunity for New Haven teachers to bring their pupils to the YCBA and apply the center’s strategies directly to their classwork.
Lee said the program allows students to engage in in-depth explorations of objects from the center’s collection through discussion, sketching and reflective writing. They use the museum’s artworks as “touchstones” to make their own discoveries. To impart lessons of visual literacy, Lee also conducts storytelling sessions with the students.
“We discuss how it feels to see the painting live in the beautiful Louis Kahn galleries,” Lee said.
Friedlaender has been working with Lee for 15 of the 25 years of her time at the center. During Lee’s storytelling sessions with the students, Friedlaender and Darragh organize follow-up activities to stimulate the students’ imaginations, expand their vocabulary and solidify their understanding of objects in the center’s collection.
“[Lee] has studied myths and fables and the history of storytelling, as well as storytelling amongst different cultures. Depending upon the age of his audience, he gears the presentation towards them,” Friedlaender said.
But that was before COVID-19. Since the pandemic, the center has moved all programming to an online format, sharing conversations with artists, book discussions and performances on their website. Additionally, the pandemic resulted in the closure of schools in New Haven. When Lee and Friedlaender realized that students would not be able to visit the YCBA for almost a year, they wanted to help them virtually.
Thus, “Artful Tales” emerged as an attempt for the center to connect with New Haven students virtually and continue to foster connections between art and the public while the center is closed. Friedlaender proposed taping Lee narrating stories based on objects in the collection. Lee’s videos end with an invitation for students to engage with one of the center’s learning resources. Lee invites viewers to “sketch the painting from a window in [their] home,” to “write a story using this as the setting” or think about phrases such as “knowledge is power.”
While Friedlaender invites viewers of all ages to engage with Lee’s videos, she said they are targeted at elementary school students with whom Lee conducted most storytelling workshops. Friedlaender noted that the Center plans to distribute art supplies and materials to underprivileged students in New Haven so that students can engage with Lee’s stories from home.
“Sketching is a tool for seeing and a way to collect your ideas about a painting is a very important part of our work in the galleries and in classrooms,” Lee said. “We hope people watching the programs with children will encourage them to take time to sketch – and that they will send us pictures of their drawings.”
YCBA Senior Administrative Assistant Amelia Ewan, who is also a mother of two, said her children have enjoyed listening to Lee’s stories.
“Their favorite was ‘Peeling Potatoes’ because of the funny words that the old man used for everyday items in the story,” Ewan said. “Tom’s story brings the painting to life and makes you think about [it] in a different way. You envision the characters in the story and place them within the scenery of the painting.”
Ewan added that the supplemental exercises — which include sketching, drawing and reimagining the story — reinforce this engagement. For example, one of the exercises encourages the viewer to make up silly words and rewrite the story. Ewan said while her children do not enjoy writing, allowing them to be “silly” makes the task easier.
Kristin Dwyer, YCBA special events and advancement coordinator and also a mother of two, said the videos offer a “fun, lighthearted way” for audiences to engage with the center.
“They encourage close looking from a fresh perspective, whether one is already familiar with the paintings or has never seen them before,” Dwyer added.
“We are delighted to offer online these ‘at home’ activities based on our collections,” Beth Miller, deputy director for advancement and external affairs at the YCBA, said. “[We] look forward to welcoming storyteller Tom Lee back to the center when we reopen.”
The YCBA “at home: Learning Resources” series was produced by the center in collaboration with Lee and Darragh. The video series is supported by the William Randolph Hearst Education Endowment at the YCBA.
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