The painting is stark, haunting and rich with suggestion: three men dressed in blue sit and stand by a cracked and stained interior wall marked with odd scribblings, one holding his head, another staring out from the canvas, while outside a woman dressed for summer relaxes beneath a colorful umbrella on a manicured lawn behind a chain-link fence.
The painting, Randall Deihl’s The Belchertown State School, will be the subject of intense scrutiny next week when a small group of Five College faculty members study and discuss it as part of “Excavating the Image,” an annual two-day symposium jointly hosted by the Museum of Art and the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute.
“The idea is to spend two days with a single work of art and to really dig in,” says Maggie Lind, associate educator for academic programs at the museum, “to uncover all the interrelated histories and stories and cultural connections that are present in a single work of art.”
The painting depicts a scene from the Belchertown State School, a state-run facility for the treatment of mentally disabled children and adults, which operated from the 1920s to the early 1990s.
“One of the most interesting things is the window that looks out on this picture-perfect world with the perfect green lawn and the cropped tree and the woman sunning herself,” says Lind about the Deihl painting. “It’s that contrast between what’s going on inside this building for decades and life that’s going on outside, in our very own community, basically.”
Now in its third year, the symposium draws educators in fields ranging from chemistry to communications, and the collaborative approach has yielded fascinating results, notes Lind.
Last year’s studied work, The Birth of RMB City, a video by Cao Fei, a young Chinese artist, documented the creation of a city in “Second Life,” an online virtual platform.
“She created a virtual Chinese city that has references to real-life Chinese landmarks but also goes off in weird directions,” Lind says. “There’s a huge floating panda in the sky, for instance, and a giant bicycle wheel that spins.”
The blend of real and imagined features at first seemed fantastical, recalls Lind, but the more participants delved into the video, the more they began to see connections to the real world.
“We started to really see how [the virtual city] was representing this massive, fast-paced urban change that was happening,” Lind says. “For me, and I think for a lot of the participants, it was this transition to ‘Oh, this is much more real than I realized.’ That was transformative.”
Participants in this year’s program will have the opportunity to discuss the work with the artist. Deihl, a local resident whose works hang in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, will attend a session on the first day of the program to speak about the creation of his painting, The Belchertown State School, in 1976, and answer questions about his technique and intentions.
Other speakers at this year’s program include:
- Steve Kaplan, who collaborated with his friend Ruth Sienkiewicz-Meyer, a woman with cerebral palsy, to write I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, which includes detailed descriptions of her 16 years in the Belchertown State School
- and James Trent, professor of sociology and social work at Gordon College, in Wenham, Mass., and author of Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States, who will introduce participants to the historical context of institutions like the Belchertown State School.
“In the ‘70s there was a lot of controversy about this place and the treatment of the people in it,” Lind says. “There were some lawsuits and exposés, and we’re going to get some of the context of the treatment of people with mental disabilities in the United States.”
As in past years, the program will start and end with an hour-long session viewing and discussing the chosen work.
“Even after two days of talking about the same work of art,” Lind says, “there’s always more to say. We’re hoping it can serve as a model for the faculty in terms of how much you can do with a single art work, so that they can then take this experience and create similar experiences for their students.”