Learning to see: Ann Arbor through an art historical lens

Sunday, October 29, 2017 - 5:00pm

Walls don’t have voices, but they can speak.

Try listening to the walls in Ann Arbor. Have you noticed the graffiti tags on them? On the city’s more public walls, these marks whisper the monikers of their makers –– they are disobedient yet discrete.

If you go to Graffiti Alley on East Liberty, the walls scream at you. Come back the next day, and they will scream something different. Here, the conversation never concludes, it never pauses. It always continues.

Walls engage in dialogue through a visual vocabulary and grammar. To communicate with them, we must first develop visual literacy. My story of visual literacy began with one specific wall: the exterior wall of the South Thayer Panera.

Today, Panera is the site of my quick breakfasts where I grab a coffee and bagel before my Art History class.

Art History is my area of study at the University. But before I made the choice to take my first Art History class, I misunderstood all that this discipline would teach me. From it, I thought I would equip myself with a knowledge about the evolution of art through history (its movements, its masters), a vocabulary to translate the visual qualities of a painting into words and the persona of a pensive museum-goer.

An Art History education would be insufficient without an understanding of the technique, context and history of art. But I didn’t realize that the most important part of Art History is to teach me to be thoughtful about what I see.

It is easy to passively engage with images, to neglect to question them. This is dangerous because images have power. I think that artwork and visual environments are more difficult to engage with because they speak a language different from the written and spoken language most people practice every day: They speak a visual language.

From a very young age we are taught to read and write. An essential goal of the education system is literacy. And literacy is so important because it is a tool that enables members of society to engage and become active citizens. But I feel that those same efforts are not made for visual literacy.

Art is incorporated into early education. At my elementary school, we stood divided into two camps: The kids who liked art class and the kids who liked gym class. Art is a requirement until the seventh grade in my public school system, and even the “gym kids” (who might have chosen to forgo finger painting) engaged in some art production.

Being an “art kid,” I willingly incorporated art into my education beyond seventh grade. Yet for someone so involved in art study — having spent eight high school semesters in studio classes, engaging with all new forms of media (graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, pen, oil, water color) — I was not once prompted to try and understand and read artwork. Yet in English, we would isolate the sentence, study its nuances and decipher how it communicates ideas.

I think I was always searching for visual literacy, however, even if though I didn’t realize that’s what I was looking for. I didn’t realize that I could achieve this through the study of Art History, either. What brought me to who I am and what I do now was the incidental choice to take a first-year writing seminar about graffiti art.

We learned about the evolution of the graffiti art movement, how it interacts with and is reacted to in communities, and how to read it. It wasn’t an Art History course, but it was my first exposure to the study of understanding art.

Graffiti artists use the urban landscape as their canvas. Their work is site-specific: It seeks to respond to and engage in the dialogue in the urban landscape. In this way, the walls of a city do have voices: They share the voices of artists that seek to communicate with the community through visual means.

Looking back at my old essays, I found this quote: “We must become literate … We must understand graffiti to listen to whom it gives a voice.” It makes me sentimental to see that the importance I saw in understanding graffiti art is what made me embark on my study of Art History, and that I now am devoting my education to following this belief.

I have actually made my mark on Ann Arbor. I made it on the outside of Panera on South Thayer Street during one of my classes when we worked on a University-commissioned mural with visiting Athenian street artist Cacao Rocks. You can’t see my mark; it’s painted over because it didn’t look very good. But in the words of my freshman self, “The marks on city walls memorialize the stories of the people who put them there; their stories become part of the city’s history and their marks integrate into the architecture of the streets.” Panera is more to me than a place to get my coffee and bagel. It is one of the places over the course of a semester where I was directed toward my very serious passion.