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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life September 12, 2022

Art for All

Maya Durham ’23 develops more inclusive opportunities for children to experience the joys of art and express their creativity

Photographs by Jeff Baker

By mid-August, Maya Durham, a rising senior at Smith, was packing up, preparing to move “back up north” for the start of the fall semester at Smith. She had spent the summer months teaching art in a summer K-12 program at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. At the same time, she had participated remotely in The Guggenheim’s Summer 2022 College Workshop, a prestigious paid enrichment program open to eligible undergraduate and graduate students. So admittedly, life had been “a little crazy.” Although the two summer experiences varied in location and approach, neither strayed far from embodying the ethos of what she considers her lifelong path: introducing children to both creative art experiences and the diversity of original artwork that can be found in the hallowed halls of some of America’s greatest museums.

It’s the highest calling for Durham, who is double majoring in art history and education and child study. She is as passionate about social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion as she is driven to create more inclusive art opportunities for children of varying backgrounds and identities. Likewise, she can remember many of the details of her own early childhood experiences with art.

Starting in kindergarten, I was fortunate enough to participate in extracurricular art history classes, which incorporated technical art lessons. We began with cave art in kindergarten and culminated with contemporary art in high school. We would learn about an art movement, or a particular artist, and create original works based on their style and techniques—like throwing paint when we learned about Jackson Pollock. In high school, I worked with my teacher to develop lessons about artists of color.

Now, at Smith, there really is no better combination for me than my double majors in art history and education and child study, and I’m also pursuing K-8 visual arts education licensure. This training has dovetailed with my internships, which to my great joy have focused on educational programming in museum settings.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to explore art education in myriad contexts. At the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative (AWHI), where I interned in the summer of 2021, I engaged with museum education at all levels, navigating what education looks like outside of the classroom. At the Guggenheim I explored children’s art as a form of ritual. In my summer teaching [this year], I was reminded of how much happiness I experience when I get to create and engage with students all day.

Maya Durham next to the Brown Fine Arts Center sign

My commitment to social and racial justice drove my work with AWHI, where I was able to create a curriculum for eighth-grade BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) girls in the DC public schools district. We led these students through the National Portrait Gallery, showing them images of women of color displayed in one of the most prominent galleries in the country. Many of them had never been to the museum before, and they were met with images of women that connected with their everyday lives: looking at Madam C.J. Walker [African American entrepreneur who developed a line of hair care products for Black women in the early 1900s], they all laughed at how she was responsible for the burns they had endured at the end of a hot comb; and they were shocked to learn that the regal [American mezzo-soprano opera singer] Denyce Graves had gone to the same schools some of them attended. Representation is a powerful element of social justice, and it is so special seeing children encounter it for the first time. 

For the Guggenheim Summer College Workshop, I [created a proposal that] explored secret handshakes as a ritual practice for children. I think they’re an example of how children can utilize their imaginations, build relationships, and advance their senses of agency. Particularly in schools, children are given relatively strict guidelines for where they need to go, what they need to learn, and who they get to interact with on a daily basis. Despite these structures, children find ways to create and imagine in any way they can, and secret handshakes are one way they do this. My final project for the Guggenheim workshop was a video illustrating children’s secret handshakes. I used crayon animation to convey a sense of childlike whimsy.

I can’t wait to be able to apply my love and passion for art education to a full-time professional context. I want all children to know that art is a way to explore and express a range of experiences ... as I believe one of the most important roles of a museum educator is to excite learners of every stage about the art histories that are often underrepresented. I hope that my post-grad professional life will be filled with introducing children to art they love, art which reflects them and offers them the assurance that they belong in art spaces.