Connected \\ April 28, 2020

Eager for conversation

When Associate Curator Lydia Gordon logged in to a video conference call on a recent morning, the smiling faces of 18 high school students appeared on her screen. Unable to take a scheduled trip to PEM to see the Jacob Lawrence exhibition, the class took a different approach for their course Artists Response to Social Change.

A smiling woman faces the viewer with a laptop full of students faces in a grid in the background

PEM Associate Curator Lydia Gordon at home, going on a video call with the students.

Gordon, the coordinating curator for the exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, was invited to speak to a history class of juniors and seniors at Beaver Country Day School in Newton. The students had taken their own virtual tour of the exhibition by studying the paintings in the artist’s Struggle series on PEM’s website and created original podcasts and Virtual Reality experiences in response to the influential American artist. (“He was fearless in telling these stories,” reports one of the student podcast co-hosts.)

Students faces forming a grid on a desktop screen

Students from Beaver Country Day School on a video call with the author.

“Learning how much these students are connecting with Lawrence and his Struggle series and how they are making meaning of the exhibition is truly inspiring. It's why we do what we do,” says Gordon. “Especially during this time, I appreciate the connections we can still make through the museum — the engagement gives me great comfort.”

For the online classroom conversation, the students had many questions. They wanted to know more about how an exhibition is designed, what steps PEM took to reunite the 30 panels and explore more deeply how the artwork was inherently inclusive through the many different people represented in its stories. They also asked Gordon if she had a favorite.

“I love that question. As a curator, I feel like I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I do,” Gordon says. It is Panel 18, In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit . . . —Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803. “Visually, the colors are so beautiful and striking,” she says, while pointing out the vivid blues and reds surrounding Sacagawea and her brother, Shoshone Chief Cameahwait. “There’s a symbolic meaning of a reunion being depicted in the panel. It was beautiful in the context of the main project, which was also this reunion within a reunion of Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series.”

Panel 18, 1956, Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM

Panel 18, 1956, Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM.

While education must transition into new formats due to the coronavirus health crisis, meaningful connections are happening with those hungry for conversations about art. “I miss being in the classroom, but in some way, this is a little more intimate,” adds Gordon.

A screen image of a Virtual Reality experience. A streetleading to tall buildings with billboards filled with text and paintings

One of the two Virtual Reality experiences the students produced on Jacob Lawrence.

Now more than ever, Gordon finds she reflects on the artist’s perseverance and courage. “Jacob Lawrence’s call to action is incredibly inspiring. His spirit gives me great hope today,” she says. “For that, I’m incredibly grateful to have worked on this project and can share it with students virtually. It’s clear to me the messages explored in this exhibition are still being communicated to our audiences.”

Follow these links to explore examples of student work inspired by the exhibition: Virtual Reality , VR TWO, Podcast, Podcast.

Take a virtual tour of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle by going to the exhibition page.

The PEM staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown. Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided. For more information and updates, please visit and keep in touch through our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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