“When you look at art, you are able to see, almost perceive, a physical representation of the story compared to just the words printed on paper in your textbook or written sources,” said one student in Jessica Hunsberger‘s History of the United States, a sentiment many students agreed with when viewing the visiting artist’s artwork Howard Menken“It’s a completely different experience, but somehow it almost gives a better and easier understanding of what it’s trying to represent,” added another.
On June 10, Menken, who is Hunsberger’s father, visited two of them Sleepy Hollow High School US history courses to showcase the social commentary artwork from his latest exhibition, titled “Why?”. One of the most popular themes during the history lesson this year was how individuals and groups can create social change. Additionally, the class comprehensively discussed relevant theories including the purpose of a writer, the purpose of a speaker, and even the purpose of an artist when citing sources.
“I did not want to whisper–I wanted he shouted”Explained Menken as students walked and looked at his gallery. Menken transported all of his pieces to school, so the students had the unique opportunity to get close to all of his artwork from the comfort of their own classrooms. All pieces of him visually describe and speak of tragic historical events or enduring issues such as the Holocaust, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the Trail of Tears.
“I thought Mr. Menken’s piece on Matthew Shepard was really impactful,” said an 11th grade student. Natalia. The piece in question was an emotionally graphic depiction of the murder of the gay college student who was left to die tied to a fence. This 1998 hate crime is best known for the trial, which brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at both the state and federal levels.
“I was not aware of this specific event, and I don’t think many of my classmates were either. It was interesting to see someone from her generation knowing so much about today’s problems and seeing it reflected so emotionally in her works, “explained Natalie.
As they watched, they talked in small groups, continuing with conversations about the pieces, what they had learned, their personal interpretations and how they influenced them. They also had the opportunity to help name some of Menken’s pieces for his exhibit. For example, after thinking thoroughly about the subject and how the artwork presented it, the students came up with the name “Freedom Behind Bars” for one of Menken’s pieces on immigration.
However, during the reflection and naming process, the students realized rather quickly that while their initial feelings about how some messages sound clearer through art still seemed somehow true, art has the potential to be interpreted in different ways, as indicated by the various interpretations written on the post-it notes surrounding Mr. Menken’s pieces. This experience offered the students a first-hand look at the advantages of the artistic perspective and its limitations, underlining the value of the balance between written, oral and artistic perspectives in the interpretation of history and current events.
“I believe that this experience has not only shown how creativity is an important outlet for us when we feel disturbed or frustrated by events in the world, but it has also helped to show students how people can educate and make change through their works of art. ‘art,’ shared Hunsberger.
“My hope is that this experience will inspire students to take informed action on pressing issues we face in our society.”