Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Bringing Emotion to the Art You Make

People like to ask writers and artists: Please describe your daily routine. Author Andre Dubus III once replied: I sit down and do nothing. I just hold still for a while. He works in a small, basement room. No windows. No art on the walls. Whatever comes, it comes from within.

Scott Nelson: photo courtesy
Worcester Art Museum
He was talking about some of the hardest work an artist does. He connects with himself, his vulnerabilities, and, ultimately, his artist’s voice. Author Steve Almond won’t answer that question directly. Instead, he insists: I’ve found my own way and you have to find yours. Be alone with yourself. That’s where you’ll find your singular offerings, the ones that matter.

Illustrator, author and art teacher at the Worcester Art Museum Scott Nelson has the same idea. “The work starts to get good when it becomes individualized.”

Creative expression is about communicating sometimes complex and emotional messages in ways that resonate with audiences. It’s not easy, this kind of opening up, digging deeper. Being expressive means igniting that connection between head and heart, and then making sense of whatever emotional material spews out. It takes courage to dig deep, to tap the emotional vein. And it takes a lot of practice to work with feelings — the stuff that shapes the clay.

 Photo courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

My friend Rod Philbrick wrote 15 novels before he heard the words, “They like it, kid. You’re in.” Practically from birth, he dreamed of being a famous novelist and, wow, did he persevere. That 28-year-old who could make a boat or a song or a painting, he finally got it right on his 15th try. For all his talent, he had only one identity that mattered to him: writer. 

“I lived in NH at the time, and on every license plate it said, ‘Live Free or Die.’ In my mind, I always amended that to ‘Publish Soon or Die.’ That was the reality of my every waking moment.” And that’s how one writer finally found his most affecting storytelling voice, a voice that took 15 years and 15 books to fledge.

How can a writer pull life from a block of Helvetica type? Or a painter make a Starry Night from pigment?

“You need to make a strong connection with your audience. You do that through emotion,” says Scott Nelson, whose classes include illustration and bookmaking in WAM’s studio arts program. “I tell my students they can make these emotional connections through the eyes, through facial expression and body language. Young children, especially, make connections through eye-to-eye contact. Think of how babies look right into the eyes of their caregivers.”

 Photo courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

The book, “Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye,” by Pascal Bonafoux, introduces readers to the artist with a series of self-portraits. What greets me are Van Gogh’s eyes, the fire around which the rest of him is arranged — both the artist and the subject. He is so skilled, alive, honest and so variable. The eyes under the brim of a straw hat seem curious, while in another portrait he feels slyly wise. In another he is clearly guarded. I get the feeling something just happened. And in “Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat, Paris, 1887,” he confronts me straight on, though I am unsure where this encounter will lead. If I just watch and wait, more will happen.

When Scott Nelson teaches his students about illustrating characters in children’s books, his first lessons involve the eyes. From there he moves to an artist’s use of body language with emphasis on the word language. He says he likes to draw his own characters as if they were macaroni people — loose and free, very natural. “Body language can be as simple as the slump of a shoulder, the arc of a spine, the way a person leans on one leg. All these little nuances, no matter how subtle, are things kids can read. Despite their young ages, they already understand body language.” 

Van Gogh only painted for about nine years, beginning in 1881. He started expressing his passionate point of view by keying in on body language. “For a long time,” wrote Bonafoux, “Vincent did not paint portraits but painted only what he called ‘figures’: men and women who did not pose for their features but for a gesture, an attitude, most often associated with work. Old Man with His Head in His Hands, 1882, is a portrait not of a man but of his despair.” 

 Photo courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

 Photo courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

When an artist can tap into that place where feelings reside and bring them out through their brush strokes, their fingerpicking, their interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” then they are on their way to communicating with their audience.

Again, it’s such hard work. Sometimes, when I’m teaching or editing someone’s work, I’ll say, “You need to go deeper.” A lot happens when rewriting and revising. Writer George Saunders dug deep when he wrote “Lincoln in the Bardo.” While reading that complex, astonishing book I felt like I was right there, in the gloom and miasma of President Lincoln’s all-consuming grief at the loss of his young son. I can summon it, still.

Saunders tells his writing students: “We can’t believe a story if we don’t see it and feel it.” Rod Philbrick’s most widely read book, “Freak the Mighty,” feels joyful at times, heartbreaking at other times. “That’s why I write in first person. I can tell the story heart to heart,” he says.

 Photo courtesy of Worcester Art Museum
Oprah Winfrey said she was so angry reading Dubus’s novel, “House of Sand and Fog,” that she threw the book across the room. One of Rod’s young readers, Tanyana B., wrote: “Dear Mr. Philbrick, your book, ‘Freak the Mighty,’ made our teacher Mrs. Troxell cry at the end, which the whole class thought was funny. Thanks.” Okay, plenty of emotion, not all of it expected!

Scott Nelson produced more than 2,000 greeting cards before he moved on to writing and illustrating children’s books. He’s very focused on the customer and this orientation has served him well. “Be passionate,” he says, “but don’t be precious. Whatever story you have inside, let’s make it the best it can be.”

Nelson, a cartoonist by trade, leans toward funny stories. “I like to laugh. It’s my thing. I also write about bullying, or, to be precise, no bullying. That’s my well. In my classes, we process our stories through the storyboarding. That’s where we go deeper. And that’s where it happens, and students are always surprised. ‘I see it,’ they’ll say. ‘It’s happening.’ The story is coming to life.”


For more information:

Register for Scott Nelson’s summer class for adults on illustrating and developing stories for children’s books:


Listening to Kids with Rodman Philbrick:


Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye


George Saunders’ Substack writing class — Story Club:


Thursday, June 23, 2022

WAM x University

What does it take to be able to see a painting in your mind’s eye as you listen to a discussion of it? Maybe it helps to hear an animated account of its colors and composition. Maybe it helps to hear about the life of the artist, and their struggles to figure out what kind of art they wanted to make. Can an audio recording help foster an aesthetic appreciation of a challenging work of art?

Last fall, students in my Art History seminar confronted these and many other questions as they embarked on an exciting, if challenging project, to develop a podcast that introduced WAM’s amazing collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings to the public. The students—who were sophomores, juniors, and seniors, mostly Art History majors and minors—were enrolled in a course titled “Art, the Public, and Worcester’s Cultural Institutions.” This course is designed to give students the opportunity to put their Art History skills in the service of public scholarship.  At Clark, we run this course every year, although the specific public project that students are involved with varies from year to year (WAM visitors may recall the exhibition Women at WAM from 2019, which was also the product of this course, when taught by my colleague, Prof. John Garton). For the Fall 2021 semester, the students and I worked with then-Associate Curator of American Art Erin Corrales-Diaz to develop a season of podcast episodes that would introduce the public to WAM’s extraordinarily deep and vibrant collection of mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionist paintings.

The Abstract Expressionist (or “AbEx” – as you will hear many of the students call it in their podcast episodes) collection includes important works by artists like Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, and Norman Lewis. Yet many people—my students included—often feel frustrated and even intimidated when looking at these paintings. Most of them are quite large, and they feature dynamic brushwork, layers of paint, vibrant colors—and no recognizable images. How is a viewer supposed to respond? 

Over the course of the semester, students learned about the AbEx movement, its foundational ideas, and its key critics. They spent hours looking at the individual painting they were assigned to work on, thinking about how best to describe it. How do you translate a vibrant visual object into words? It’s not very easy! Then they had the opportunity to do deep research in the archives here at WAM and extensive reading in WAM’s library. They learned about the careers of the artists behind these passionate paintings, about their ambitions, their triumphs, and their inspirations. After weeks of research and reading, the students drafted their scripts, peer reviewed each other’s work, and finally sat down to record the episodes you can hear now.

While at first you may have thought these paintings were nothing more than “beautiful nonsense,” as Jonathan Hoff admits in the first episode of the season, by the conclusion, in Margret Lambert’s words, “the light is revealed.” The listener of the season’s episodes will have a layered, thoughtful, and—yes—joyful experience learning about them. Tune in!

Listen to the WAM x University podcast

Kristina Wilson, Professor of Art History, Clark University

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Express Yourself!

I grew up in Santa Barbara, where beautiful beaches were within walking distance and where half my childhood, it seemed, took place on a beach towel or in the surf. If my mother was with me, she sat on a towel and sketched — tidepools, shore birds, couples walking hand-in-hand, driftwood, even me, when I wasn’t looking. She had a degree in fine arts, but I never heard her say the words en plein air.

For her, sketching while outdoors was how she expressed her love of nature. Her father, trained as a cabinetmaker in Switzerland, “whittled” or carved little animals and tiny cages in which to hold his diminutive sculptures. In that way he preserved what caught his fancy when in the Sierras, camping. Meanwhile I glommed onto the John Muir model — ecstatic written expression. My sketchbook had lines and strings of words. A multi-media family, you might say, with much to express.

With spring finally here, students of all ages taking studio art classes at the Worcester Art Museum may be moved to step outside and linger for a while. You may think you are in search of a broader view than winter’s confines may have provided. You may simply want some deep breaths of sun-infused air or the thrilling song of mating birds. Or you might just want to take your senses out for some long overdue exercise. But, surprise, you might be moved to make some art outdoors as your senses rejuvenate.

Adult Studio Classes, Photo Credit Worcester Art Museum.

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