Back in April, we asked a few friends to tell us about photos they loved in the Walker People’s Archive, a collection of photos you submitted to mark the Walker’s 75 years of operating as a public art center under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.
Wing Young Huie was gripped by this photo, writing that “it records a loss and it haunts me.”
He continued, “A quick search through the Internet offers no results for ‘Bryant Art School,’ and though this archive preserves these two faces, their names are nowhere to be found. Notice their fingers, her toes, and the distance between them that she crosses with her eyes.”
As Huie suggests, this is a history that is just barely remembered. When we archived this photograph with the WPA, we hoped someone would tell us who it pictured. No such luck. But we did hear from David Tomlinson, who taught art for 30 years at North High School and served as a Walker art intern in the late 1960s (about which, more below). We took that stroke of luck and Huie’s response to the photo as a prompt to tell you what we do know about the Walker-Bryant Art Workshop, to use its proper name. While the Internet does not (yet?) have much to say about it, and both paperwork and memories that might help answer our questions are indeed lost, we can piece together the story of a bold arts education and outreach initiative, and the first of the Walker’s Teen Programs. These photos, taken by Eric Sutherland for the Walker, along with contemporary press accounts and recent interviews, help to tell the tale.
The Walker-Bryant Art Workshop was a summer arts school for junior and senior high school students inaugurated in 1968. The workshop was a collaboration between the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Public Schools, funded in part by the Minnesota State Arts Council (now the Minnesota State Arts Board). It was also the centerpiece of a wider campaign to develop contemporary arts education materials for use across the school system and engage a young audience in the activities of the Walker, informed by Walker director Martin Friedman’s belief that direct contact with art and artists was the ideal way to reach teens, particularly those who were not thriving under a normal curriculum. As Frank Johnston, coordinator of the workshop for the Walker, put it to the Minneapolis Star, the program “looked for kids with ideas and dreams who hadn’t gotten a chance to put them to use.”
Over four weeks in July 1968, classes met weekday mornings in the basement of Bryant Junior High School, at 3rd Avenue South and East 38th Street, home since 1979 to Sabathani Community Center (and not far from Huie’s The Third Space Gallery).We don’t have a full list of the workshop’s students, but articles about the program in the Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune name a few of them: Ron Williams, Devoryn Ligons, Rita Rodriguez, Kathy Tull (all pictured below), Colin Brown, Keith Carter, Gayle Cedarblade, Cynthia Cline, Jesse Clinton, Leslie David, Tom Jordan, Pam Meyer, Darrel Pope, and Sandra Williams.
They were among the nearly 100 students chosen to join the workshop, out of 350 applicants from across the school system. Selection criteria emphasized creative promise and leadership ability over academic achievement or past performance. About half of the program’s participants came from “minority groups,” to use the language of the day; nearly three-quarters came from the “inner-city” schools the program targeted — Bryant, Lincoln, North, and Central. Students who finished the program (which turned out to be all but four of them) earned $75 stipends as compensation for time they might otherwise have spent at summer jobs.
David Tomlinson had been teaching art at North for just three years when he joined the Walker as an “art intern” in the spring of 1968. He met us one recent afternoon at the Walker to tell us about his experience and the program.
The Art Intern Program released pairs of high school teachers from their classes so that they could spend half days at the Walker developing curricular activities in contemporary art. According to an article in Art Education, the first interns organized a continuing education program for teachers and assembled slide shows based on the Walker’s permanent collection for use across the Minneapolis Public School system. (Tomlinson’s contribution was “The Transformation of the Figure in 20th Century Art.”) And they taught in the Walker-Bryant Art Workshop.
Tomlinson’s colleagues in the workshop included Harold Thill (art, West High), Lewis Duckett (art, Jefferson Junior High), William Steuber (industrial arts, North High), all interns with the Walker. They were joined by sculptor Richard Randall and set and costume designer Robert Israel, among others.
It was an experimental art program, with the emphasis on experiment: training focused on the unconventional and multidisciplinary, and encouraged students to make large-form works using innovative methods and unusual materials. Students learned to weld (in bare feet, apparently).
They experimented with plastics, plexiglass, resin, metals, mylar, found objects, and kinetic and light objects. (As Tomlinson put it to us, “It was a glitzy time.”)
After working briefly in various media, students focused on longer projects, pursued alone or in groups, as they choose. Their projects reflected the arts of the day: there were walls of Pop art featuring Donald Duck and superheroes. One group made a street scene that led into a flower-walled, pink paper-lit tunnel, another a modernist installation in red, white, and black — which must have been the setting for our photo #72. Inspired by George Segal, other students made a life-sized sculpture of a woman from cheesecloth and plaster, the intrepid Devoryn Ligons serving as model.
The workshop’s cavernous spaces and capacious schedule encouraged ambitious undertakings beyond what had been possible at school. Tomlinson remembered that when he incorporated casting into his art classes at North, students were faced with having to cut their casts before they set — or be late to the next hour’s class.
These student made The Computer from found objects.
As Deborah Howell described it, reporting for the Minneapolis Star, “The computer was made from the back of a set of old school lockers and painted with florescent paints which glowed under black light. The computer had bits and pieces of real electronic equipment and the students used tape recorded boiler sound effects within the computer. A robot made from an old trash can stood guard nearby.”
Students’ projects drew on works then on display at or in the collections of the Walker, including Boyd Mefferd’s light sculptures, Wayne Thiebaud’s pop/not-pop cakes and landscapes, Larry Bell’s boxes, and Charles Biederman’s painted aluminum sculptures (like Red Wing No. 6). Some students, like Jessie Clinton, used the Walker exhibition Art of the Congo as a jumping-off point for exploring both art and heritage.
Summarizing the program’s goals for the Tribune, Johnston said, “We’re trying to reach the ‘phantom’ creative students — the ones the schools wouldn’t be reaching. The idea is to find kids who have the ideas, energy, and creativity to work in an experimental program, but who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance.” He emphasized that an important part of the program was freedom: students could work in whatever way they wanted, on whatever interested them.
Tom Jordan, a student from Washburn High, seems to have gotten that message. He told the Star, “Here you could experiment, reach out for the ideal and if the teacher didn’t like it, it didn’t matter. And you didn’t have to worry about a grade.”
When he taught for the workshop, Israel was winning critical acclaim. His exhibition A Suspended Floating Environment had just been on view at the Walker, and he was at work on a commission for Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy for the the Center Opera Company’s 1970 performance at the Guthrie Theater. But, speaking to the Star, he said, “I learned more than the students. An artist is in kind of a cloistered world no matter how much he thinks he is concerned with reality.” Teaching, he said, “brought me face to face with how things really are.”
Tomlinson also remembered the workshop and the broader art intern program as “a real education,” saying that the freedom to explore contemporary art practice — the thing that interested him most about art — changed the way he taught at North, an arts and communication magnet school, where many students went on to careers in visual and performing arts.
What we don’t know, at least so far, is what difference the program made to students. Were they engaged in ways they weren’t at school? Sutherland’s photos show many intent artists at work. Did they feel empowered? Inspired? Respected? It seems, at least, that they enjoyed themselves. These images show students working, playing, resting, flirting … being teens in what was surely an exciting, if fleeting, environment.
These photos were exhibited at the Walker at the end of August 1968, in a show documenting the program, and again at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union in November. The summer workshop continued in what seems to be somewhat compressed form in 1969. And then it ended. It’s likely that this was a matter of funding. Given similar programs under way at both the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Guthrie during that time, it appears that arts education and outreach were having a moment at the end of the ’60s. As Peter Georgas, PR director for the Walker then, told me, “This was a time when you could write a federal grant for ‘inner-city neighborhoods’ and the money came in like it was over the transom.” He acknowledged that it was not easy to know from this vantage point what influence the program had on students, but he was sure “they loved it. And we really had a great time.”
Today, program evaluation is something of a science, if an inexact one. We collect information about outcomes, and to do so we define data generously, recognizing the ways that qualitative data — commentary and memories, stories and even images — reveal the complex pumping heart of humanistic endeavors, the sometimes elusive impacts of enterprises like art and teaching.Still, we can’t read every story these photos might tell. I look at Sutherland’s photos of students at work and at play, and I think of Huie’s instruction to “notice their fingers … and the distance between them that she crosses with her eyes.” In thinking about what stories these images might reveal, we should attend also to the multiple distances between the two of them and us — across time, but also across other divides, including socioeconomic space and race — that we may travel with our own gazes as we look and we wonder.
We may not learn much more about the Walker-Bryant Art Workshop. But this story can motivate us to ask other questions. What important stories are unfolding now, perhaps without our full notice? What must we do to understand them more fully? And what will we do to ensure they are not lost?
Many thanks to Jill Vuchetich and Walker Library & Archives for the assignment and assistance.