art artifact

Dear Future Educator,

The artifact pictured - a watercolor art palette - is from the year 2023. It has been an important part of my art practice for over a decade. In order to share with you different perspectives of the artifact, I studied it using a variety of techniques. I used the close looking skills that I teach as a museum educator. I asked a few friends to share their palettes. I hung the palette on the wall and asked my family to pretend it was an object hanging in a museum. I painted the palette using acrylic paint.

The most effective approaches were:

1. Close looking. As a museum educator, I instruct students to look closely at artifacts to notice details and to uncover clues about what it is and about life long ago. As I studied the artifact, I tried to look at it as if I’d never seen it before, as if it doesn’t sit next to me every day.

I noticed it is dirty and cracked. My students would say that means it’s old. It is round. There are two pieces. The top piece has 24 compartments. The compartments are filled with colors. It looks like dried paint. Some are filled, some are almost empty. It reminds me of a color wheel. There is a knob in the center that sticks up. I wondered what the knob is for. My coworker always tells students when you wonder, “Go back to the artifact and see if you can answer your question.” The knob doesn’t move. I picked up the artifact by the knob and realized I can spin it. Maybe it’s a top? Students aren’t allowed to touch all the artifacts we show them, but holding it and interacting with it in different ways helps the process of studying an artifact. The top piece is so brittle it’s cracking. The bottom part supports it. It’s like a tray. I’m trying to resist the idea that it has to sit on a table and consider other ideas. If I grasp it from the side, my fingers end up in the paint. I can balance it from the bottom like a pizza box. I use the finger from my other hand to touch the dry paint, it moves the top piece and makes a scratching noise. I wondered if similar artifacts exist in museums? I wondered if people I know use something similar and what their’s look like. I decided to reach out to people and ask.

2. An object in a museum. I hung the palette on the wall and asked my husband and son to pretend it’s in a museum. My husband did a great job with the exercise. The main thing he asked was, “I wonder why the artist chose to …” It is a really interesting perspective because even though we knew all of the things I did to the palette weren’t a choice, but a result of the painting process (splatters of paint, an empty well, a glob of paint just added), it made me wonder about when artists create art. How much is deliberate choice vs. spur of the moment or accidental? How much of an artwork is preplanned and how much unfolds as an artist creates?

3. Painting the palette. Although the palette is for watercolor paint, I chose to paint the palette on canvas with acrylics. As I painted and studied the palette and the layers of paint and splatters, I thought a lot about how they were created by accident - as a result of the painting process. I realized how hard it is to depict all of those layers built up over time, especially using a different medium. 

Studying the paint palette was an insightful process. Coincidentally I went into my coworkers’ office and she had a paint palette displayed. I asked if it was hers - meaning do you use it to paint with? It wasn’t. She collects vintage palettes. The artist tool becomes the art object!

This exercise will definitely impact both my own art process as well as my teaching, especially the concept of deliberate choices vs. art making that unfolds organically, accidentally. I think it’s important to expose students to both ways of creating whether it be within the same project or separate projects. It relates to the reason why I love watercolor. I control the watercolor to a degree but I also allow watercolor to “do it’s thing,” to blend and bleed. Throughout this process I couldn’t help but think of Bob Ross’s line, “happy accidents.”

I hope you’ve learned about art in 2023 from my research. I hope it inspires you as you think of the past. Perhaps you’ll study an art artifact of your own for yourself and a future educator.

Eileen McKenna