Having worked as both a Latin instructor for department of Classical Studies at Duke University and a student worker for the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University this past school year, I have been on the lookout for ways to bring Latin and modern art collection at Nasher Museum together. Of course, I could have brought my beginning level Latin students to look at the antiquity collection among Nasher Museum’s permanent collection but, somehow, it felt expected and un-exciting. However, when I heard about the Nasher Muse party for Duke undergraduates, I knew that I had found what I had been looking for, an opportunity for me to encourage my students to get to know Nasher Museum and re-think about Latin, which has been too often relegated as a merely “dead language.”
Two out of my nine students decided to join me for Nasher Muse. One even asked a special permission to leave her work early to join me. I asked them to peruse the pieces from Nasher Museum’s newest exhibit, Colour Correction, and teach me about how one of the pieces relates to what they have learned about Latin in our class. And their answers blew my mind. Their answers were thoughtful and thought-provoking.
One of my students pointed out William T. Williams’ HKL Portfolio series. She described to me how juxtaposing and overlapping of seemingly simple shapes and colors produced an image that was both coherent and distinct. My altera student and I discussed Six Pieces Opus X by Tom Phillips. She told me that she was pulled to this work because of its usage of texts, colors, shapes, and symbols.
Through this interaction, my students taught me that art, just like any other language, is a network of signs whose meanings are idiosyncratic to each viewer. They taught me to find the beauty and complexity of Latin grammar in simple, colored geometric figures and to approach both art and Latin (which I had been studying for a decade or so now) in novel and surprising ways. Our conversations turned out to be a teaching moment, except I was the one being taught this time.
William T. Williams, HKL1 from HKL Portfolio: A Suite of Four Works, 1970. Published by HKL, Ltd., Boston & New York. Screenprints on paper. Editions 52/144. Gift of Marjorie and Michael Levine (T’84, P’16, P’19, P’19). 2014.21.1.1-4.
Tom Phillips, Six Pieces Opus X, 1968. Screenprint on paper. Edition 126/150. Gift of Robert Steinberg 1981.55.1.