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The mission of the Ogden Museum Education Department is to create innovative programs designed to bring art and people together to explore the rich and varied cultural identities of the South. Since 2001, the department has organized an artist-in-residence program that pairs artists with local schools. Working in the medium of their choice, the artist spends three weeks with elementary school students, exploring the influence of geography and “sense of place.” Upon completion of the residency, students visit the Museum to view their finished works of art.
During this residency, artist Louise Mouton Johnson worked with second through sixth-grade students at Medard T. Nelson School, located in the Gentilly area of New Orleans, to create 14 collaborative story quilts. The narrative characteristic of Southern quilts as a historical bookmark is prominent in Johnson’s personal work and, as a former teacher of Medard Nelson School, she was inspired to create a project focusing on themes of history, memory and community.
During the first class, Johnson read aloud “Tar Beach” by Faith Ringgold, emphasizing the value of “sense of place” and the ability within everyone to dream and revisit treasured memories of places and people. Students were then asked to draw their own favorite places, people, and events. Accompanying their drawings, students wrote narrative text describing their imagery. Next, students painted their drawings with watercolor, finishing with colorful borders of collaged geometric shapes. Finally, Johnson sewed the paintings together to create 14 communal and collaborative story quilts.
Louise Mouton Johnson is a visual artist and educator. Born in New Orleans, Johnson received her B.F.A. from Xavier University in 1976 and her M.F.A. in printmaking from Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1980. Johnson has received commissions for her prints, drawings and quilts, from the Arts Council of New Orleans, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Amistad Research Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Most recently in 2018, Johnson was a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Center Artist-In-Residence (AIR) Program in New Orleans.
Q & A with Ellen Balkin, Education Manager
What is the main goal of the Artists and Residence program?
The goal of the Artists in Residence program is to increase students’ exposure to the arts and arts literacy through high quality experiences. By introducing students to new artmaking tools and techniques, we hope to promote their understanding of the world around them, as well as an appreciation of their unique region.
We also hope to introduce the students to a Museum setting and instill a significant connection to the Ogden Museum. A highlight of the program is seeing the students’ faces light up when they first see their artwork hanging in the Education Gallery and see themselves as true Southern artists.
How has your experience been working with the Artists in Residence program. How has it grown over the years?
The Artists and Sense of Place Residence program is the longest running educational program at the Museum. It began in 2001, before the Museum even opened its doors. I started working with the program in 2007 as the Outreach Coordinator. Now, as the Museum’s Education Manager, this program is still very near and dear to my heart. At the beginning of the program, the teaching artists selected had a personal connection to the neighborhood in which the school was located and investigated that “place” through art. Over the years, as charter schools replaced neighborhood schools, the term “place” has expanded to include the city, state or even the region where the school is located. Even with these changes, the goal of the program has remained the same and creates a true collaborative work of art between artist and students.
Today, the artists work with the Museum’s Outreach Coordinator, Veronica Cho, who acts as the liaison between the Museum and school and assists the artist. Veronica and the artist meet with the teachers and principal to design a suitable project that connects the artist’s passions and the students’ backgrounds and curriculum. The artist works in the school for three weeks with assistance from Veronica. At the end of the program, all students visit the Museum to see their work on display.
How many schools has the Artist in Residence program worked with over the years?
Since 2001, we have had 57 residencies that each work with about 200 students, so we have reached a total of 11,400 students over 17 years.
What does the Artist in Residence selection process look like? How are schools and artists chosen for each program?
We usually reach out to artists with whom we have an established relationship and who we know will be successful working with students in a classroom setting (usually an exhibiting artist at the Ogden Museum or a local artist from the area.) The program is funded by a grant, which comes from a number of contributors, with the Maggie George Foundation being a supporter since the inception of the program. Once we have selected an artist, we then pair them with one of the many public elementary schools in Orleans or Jefferson Parish.
Q&A with Artist Louise Mouton-Johnson
Why do you think quilts are a good medium for expressing themes of history, memory, and community?
One of the reasons why I think quilts are a good medium for expressing themes of history, memory, and community is the way the fabric that is used somehow relates to something in the quiltmaker’s past, or to the life of the person that the quilt is intended for. It could be something as simple as the blue denim used from your old jeans, or your Dad’s worn work shirt. Or a fabric scrap from your prom dress or your baby’s christening gown. These items carry memories for both the maker and the user of the quilt. Another reason is in the names that are used for traditional patterns and designs. Names like Snail’s Trail, Log Cabin, Flower Basket, Hearts and Hands, Drunkard’s Path, Baby Blocks, Broken Dishes, Double Wedding Ring, Flying Geese, Bow Tie, or Tree of Life. They are all geometric patterns that create very different and unique visual narratives in the minds of the person creating or viewing the quilt. Most people can recall a memory related to any or all of these names, which could be a way of developing a sense of community.
In what ways do you think New Orleans is like a quilt?
New Orleans is like a Crazy Quilt. In some ways, the name implies that it is a disorganized collection of things on the surface, including random sizes, colors, patterns and shapes of fabric pieces. However, the quilter usually uses a wide variety of their best fancy stitch work, and finest fabrics such as silks, laces, and velvets, to embellish and contain what may seem haphazard at first to the unprepared visitor or viewer. The result is a visually diversified and ornate work of art that provides a sense of pride for the creator and is prized by anyone that appreciates and witnesses its beauty.
You introduced the students to quilt-making with Faith Ringgold’s book “Tar Beach.” Do you have a favorite part of this story that you hope the kids latched on to?
Something about the story Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold that I saw the students relate to was the idea of sharing activities they liked doing together with family and friends. The majority of their narratives and drawings dealt with relationships with people who were significant in their lives, parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, even teachers and other positive role models in their community. Almost all of the drawing had an image of another human being who somehow had an impact on the student’s life.
How has working with kids for so long impacted your work?
Working with kids has taught me how to be patient. Also, in my 33 plus years of teaching students from kindergarten through high school, gifted, talented, regular art classes, summer museum camps, and in various socio-economic situations, I’ve learned that children everywhere all need and want the same basic things. Working with kids for so long has had an impact on the way I approach fresh ideas in my work, in that I must never forget that I am always learning – I don’t know everything – not even about art.
Any upcoming shows?
Currently, I am in a group show exhibiting collages and montages entitled And Another Thing… at Barristers Gallery, located at 2331 St. Claude Ave, on view until April 6, 2019.