Creative Classroom: Seminar immerses freshmen in many things blue

As much as he learns in his freshmen art seminar about the color blue, Yale student Benson May says, “there is still much more to discover about it.”
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School of Art senior critic and Yale College lecturer Jessica Helfand discusses a "Blue" project with Helen Tuggle '17. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

As much as he learns in his freshmen art seminar about the color blue, Yale student Benson May says, “there is still much more to discover about it.”

May, who is considering a pre-med track with a major in biomedical engineering, is primarily interested in the sciences, but decided to enroll in “Blue” as a way “to develop a completely different part of my brain,” he says.

He is among the 11 freshmen in “Blue,” taught by Jessica Helfand, a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art and lecturer in Yale College. The seminar explores “the cultural and iconic history of blue as both a method and a motive for making work in the studio,” according to Helfand’s syllabus. In the class, the students have read poetry and literature featuring the color; taken field trips to art galleries to view blue works; met with a Yale scientist to explore the presence of its hues in nature; learned from artists about how to produce blue-themed artworks; and discussed the many references to the color in language, among other explorations.

May says that what he’s learned in “Blue” has even helped him in his science courses, explaining, “The same kind of processes one uses or the questions we might ask when examining a scientific problem are not unlike the kinds of things we talk about when looking at a painting.”

His classmate, Yupei Guo, says the seminar is “perfect” for her, as she enjoys making art and is interested in the connection between the social and scientific contexts of art. She has particularly enjoyed excursions to the Yale University Art Gallery, the School of Art’s Nolen Center, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to inspect and discuss photographs, paintings, illustrations, and more.

“I have wandered among the paintings in the Yale Art Gallery numerous times, but having a professor and a group of talented, thoughtful fellow freshmen there to discuss [the works with] … brings the examination of each piece of artwork to a whole new dimension,” she says.

One of Guo’s favorite assignments was making a collage — using only monochrome paper and a particular shade of blue paint — about a social issue. She chose to explore the psychological recovery of victims of sexual assault, and made paper masks with words and imagery across them that illustrate the experience of survivors. Guo says the challenges of this and other assignments for “Blue” have taught her an invaluable lesson.

“[T]he success and inspiration I enjoyed in this seminar has convinced me that just because I have almost never taken classes in a particular subject doesn’t mean I will suffer failure, and even if I do, it is nowhere near the end of the world,” she comments. “I showed up in ‘Blue’ having never made a collage or designed a poster or made a film, yet several months later, I am convinced that anything can be possible, so long as I try.”

YaleNews interviewed Helfand about her seminar “Blue,” which she is offering for the first time this semester. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

What inspired you to teach a freshman seminar that focuses on just one color, and why blue in particular?

About 18 months ago, Dean George Levesque asked me if I could think of a class that could be conceived of as one thing but could also be many things; the example he gave me was “water.” The idea, he believed, was that you could go in any direction, offering the freshperson — new to college, far from declaring a major — a chance to really go deep.

And so, I proposed “Blue”— at once a primary color and a metaphor for sadness, an inspiration for films, poems, music, dance, cartoon characters, bird feathers, Picasso, and so much more. I liked the idea of teaching a course that was so robust in its conceptual structure yet so specific in its executional specificity. I liked the idea that we could work in analogue means (the students keep a sketchbook) and in digital media (they’ve taken photos, made a film and “painted” on their iPads with guidance from a visiting New Yorker illustrator who works in a similar fashion). I liked the idea of having students read and write, work with typography and photography, and consider blue as both a motive and a method for making work in the studio.

Do you know if there are any courses at other universities devoted to the study of one particular color?

Not to my knowledge, no.

While listed as an art class, the seminar incorporates so much more than a study of color — cultural history, literature, film, language, music. Does that make it a challenge to teach?

It does indeed. But I have always felt that Yale was the kind of place where these kinds of classes should thrive.

My own work lies somewhere at the nexus of practice and scholarship, and I think teaching students to find primary sources, to reflect on and rethink their own work in the context of hands-on collections and archives is an astonishing way to locate yourself both intellectually and creatively. You take this embarrassment of riches that is a university like Yale, and you just set the students loose. My class is structured so that we devote one class to the collections and spend one day in the studio. They read something every week and respond to it, and then following a gallery visit, they embark on a visual assignment of some kind. They’re cumulative, these assignments — building on successive skill sets — but they’re also varied and determined, to some degree, on where we can go and what we can see. It’s tricky. It’s complicated. But it’s never dull.

What makes the course so suited to freshmen?

The course may not be suited to all freshmen. In my opening lecture, I tell them precisely this: “If you’re the kind of person who wants to know what’s expected of you, the door is over there.”

“The challenge,” I say, “is to do the opposite: You’ve spent your whole high-school career trying to get into a place like Yale, and now you’re here. So let’s get to work.” And they do work. They look and collect, edit and experiment, and they learn how to critique themselves and each other. This semester, the students also had iPads, so there was a fair amount of digital experimentation, too. Because I’m decidedly agnostic on the role of the computer in the studio, they worked fluidly from sketchbook to screen, using the tablet as a camera, a film-editing suite, a color toolkit, a moving canvas. They may have thought this was insane, but then again, lucky for me they’re freshmen so they have little to compare it to!

The Beinecke Library is currently showing an exhibition called “Blue.” How valuable has this been to your course?

Nancy Kuhl, that show’s curator, is completely credited with this magnificent exhibition, which just happened, purely coincidentally, to coincide with my class. Alas, the show will be down by next spring when I hope to teach “Blue” again. But we will have the inventory list from the show, for which I am hugely grateful.

As part of their course assignments, students are making art (collages, short videos, photographs) as well as creating musical playlists and writing. Has there been a favorite assignment so far for the students? For you?

Recently, on the heels of looking at a selection of abstract paintings at the Yale Art Gallery, the students were asked to take a portion from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as a point of departure from which to produce and edit a one-minute animated film, completely without narrative. This meant concentrating on the formal qualities of movement, composition, balance, tension, harmony — in the absence of a story. I think it is particularly hard for freshmen — indeed, for any students — to make a work that is so decidedly devoid of story.

It is exceptionally hard to cede control, yet abstraction requires precisely this: a kind of letting go of the ordinary conceits of storytelling, opening up the work for broader interpretation. I think it’s fair to say that this is a terrifying idea to most people, and indeed, the results were almost uniformly disappointing. But I was so proud of them for trying, and I honestly think that the fact that so few succeeded made for an exceptionally opportune teaching point.

Sometimes, students become so obsessed with performing brilliantly that they actually don’t learn as much as they could. Conversely, failing is a way of rethinking yourself and your approach to your work. Our critique this week was exhausting but I think they came away understanding a great deal more than if they had nailed the assignment. For young artists, that’s just brutally hard. But it’s just so necessary.

What do you hope students learn most from your seminar?

To take chances and to be brave. To open up their minds and question their perceptions, to challenge their biases, to take risks with their ideas and with the execution of those ideas. I want them to view writing and visual work as complementary acts that collectively help you make sense out of the world, and your place in the world. They may not understand this until they are much older, but I think the seeds have indeed been sewn.

One of your students is red-green color blind. How is the class going for that student?

I met with him just this morning. He’s astonishing. Talk about brave! What I love about teaching classes like this is that you can get a student like this one — who would probably not describe himself as an artist, yet who wants to challenge himself visually, creatively, perceptually. This class is an art class but it is also a seminar and I’m interested in the give-and-take between ideas and form, between a student’s understanding of his or her own interests and their perceptions of larger, broader ideas about the world. My color-blind student was brave enough to take this class and he has excelled here, precisely because he is willing to push himself, to ask questions, to try new and unusual things each week. And I love that.

How are you personally inspired by the color blue? Do you have favorite blue things (artwork, song, object, literary passages, etc.?)

I just love the idea that blue can be so many things to so many different people. It’s the color of the sky, the sea, the earth from space; true blue to blue collar, blue blood to blue laws. It’s America’s favorite color, ubiquitous in gesture but ambiguous in nature, largely absent as a natural color in horticulture and mostly poisonous as a color in food. I love the epic ambiguity, the persistent paradoxes, the mysterious tensions implicit in something so dull yet huge, so seemingly harmless yet rich and complex and to me, endlessly fascinating. Honestly, what better subject could there be for a freshman seminar? 

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