Become a Member at the Menil

Posted June 25, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

ataglancetop menilIf you visit The Menil Collection any time, now through Sunday, you will get 20% off the cost of any membership level, a free Menil t-shirt, free catalogue, and enter a drawing to win one of four $50 gift certificates to Hugo’s restaurant plus a free membership upgrade. If you’ve been thinking about joining, now is certainly THE time!

WITS Students Featured in the Houston Chronicle

Posted June 18, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

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Students attending the Summer Creative Writing Workshops recently visited The Menil Collection for inspiration.  The Houston Chronicle decided to come along and bear witness to the creative process in action.  Photographer, R. Clayton McKee, caught some tremendous shots of students and their teachers as they discussed and contemplated famous works of art.  Click here to see the slideshow.

The Summer Creative Writing Workshops are a collaboration between Writers in the Schools (WITS) and Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture Project.

Photo Credit: R. Clayton McKee

Where the Story Starts

Posted January 9, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

You never know when an unusual object might prompt a fantastic story. Perhaps that’s what the WITS field trips are really all about.

In a glass display case to the left of the Thunderbird versus Whale painting in The Menil Collection art museum’s Oceania section, you can see an exhibit of Native American face masks. Inside the case, on the far right, you will find a brown, fairly nondescript face mask with a circular mouth and two holes for eyes. The label on the wall identifies the mask as a one-time possession of Captain James Cook, a 18th century English mariner.

Captain Cook was a famous explorer in the Royal Navy. He charted many unknown regions on British maps for the first time; one of his trips recorded the coastline of California. He died in Hawaii in a skirmish with the native peoples; his death in the surf became a popular subject for contemporary painters. This mask once belonged to him. We can imagine him turning it over in his hands and perhaps installing it on a table or a desk as his ship bobbed through the seas.

Markers like this remind us that art is not only made by people, but also owned by them. As ownership changes hands, the meaning of the art changes to its owners. To Cook, the mask may have been a souvenir of his travels, connected to people and places he knew firsthand. To us, the historical context has largely disappeared; we appreciate these objects primarily as art, and secondarily as historical objects.

But by writing about an object, this mask for example, we can make it come to life. As times passes, our writing can become like Captain Cook’s mask; after the presence of its owner has all but disappeared, the art remains us to connect us to the story behind it.wits-blog-pics-002.jpg

posted by Julian Martinez, Writers in the Schools

The True Artist

Posted December 14, 2007 & filed under Notebook.

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Because I’m an arts writer, I especially enjoy guiding student writing field trips through The Menil Collection art museum. I invariably learn something new from my students. Recently, we stopped at Bruce Nauman’s neon piece of text-based art which reads:

The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”

I asked the third graders I was leading that day to respond to this work with poems containing their own ideas of what a “true artist” does. Here is one response:

The true artist helps

the world by revealing

mystic truths. To make

the person wonder what

it is. To bring excitement.

To make them interested.

To make them want to write.

To like the piece of

art. To make them

wonder what it is doing.

To always show feeling.

To think about what totria

draw.

by Catherine, 3rd Grade

posted by Tria Wood, Writers in the Schools

Lessons from Otabenga Jones and Associates

Posted December 11, 2007 & filed under Notebook.

p1010016.jpgOtabenga Jones and Associates is a Houston-based artist collective including Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans, and Robert A. Pruitt. These four artists, whose work has been featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial (both individually and under the auspices of Otabenga Jones and Associates), create installations that question our current perceptions of of African American history and experience, and open new spaces for discussing these issues.

Recently, the two WITS classes I work with at Jesse H. Jones High School visited the Otabenga Jones and Associates installation, “Lessons from Below,” at The Menil Collection art museum. It was a thrill to watch the students process feelings of awe, outrage, and intrigue as they explored the installation, which includes a classroom space, a library, a plethora of artwork and documents from The Menil Collection archives, a video display of scholars discussing various topics associated with the exhibition’s themes, and large displays of items from the artist collective’s own amalgamation of objects depicting African Americans in popular culture.

Fellow WITS writer and musician Jesús Arturo Ávila-Escamilla and I played examples of Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word poetry for the students, then encouraged them respond to the Otabenga Jones and Associates installation in a similar fashion. Here is a collaborative work created by several students, which includes fragments of text found in the objects on display:

Lessons from Below
John Johnson was a champ
and he was a bus driver.
Grow an Afro, man, and no one
will ever call you boy.
The scribbles on the wall are
like my vision of the future.
You can kill the revolutionary,
but you can’t kill the revolution.
He keeps his weapon close to his heart,
but he doesn’t know why.
Está my pequeño para tener
un cuete.

What is black?
Black is beautiful.
Truth is on its way.
Three different scars mean
three different things for
three different cultures.

Through dealing directly with the potentially difficult and racially-charged subject matter of this installation, these students and I learned, together, new ways to interact and understand each other. I hope that we’ll all put the lessons we learned from Otabenga Jones and Associates into practice, revisiting our shared histories while creating new futures.

posted by Tria Wood, Writers in the Schools
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Writing Prompted by Art

Posted November 12, 2007 & filed under Notebook.


Many WITS students get to take a field trip to an art museum. By studying the art closely and actively using their imaginations, students create stories, essays, and poems that exceed their own intentions. In this photo, a student writes in a gallery of The Menil Collection in Houston.

Photo originally uploaded by witshouston on flickr