Whether it’s the mobiles of Alexander Calder, the genius of Leonardo da Vinci or the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau by Durango’s own Stanton Englehart, the docents of the Durango Arts Center share their love of art with students ranging in age from kindergartners to senior citizens.
“We always have to start with what a docent is,” said Florence Short, one of the longest serving volunteers in the program, which was founded in 1992. “We have a number of retired teachers, a number of artists or art teachers and people like myself who are completely devoted to art.”
The word docent is derived from the Latin “docere,” meaning to teach, and they are a corps of volunteers who staff museums and other educational institutions. The Durango Botanical Society also relies on docents to explain its demonstration gardens.
The group began by giving presentations about the artists exhibiting in what is now the Barbara Conrad Gallery at the arts center, a program it still offers.
“We meet with the artists to learn about their lives and work,” said Joanne Bagley, the chairwoman of the group. “We also teach things like gallery etiquette, so students will be comfortable in a gallery setting.”
Art in the Schools was the brainchild of the late Inge Silton, who had been involved in a similar program in the Washington, D.C., area, Short said. It has become a significant part of many teachers’ lesson plans, with the docents reaching almost 1,000 students annually. While they primarily work with Durango School District 9-R schools, they have also taught at several private schools in town.
“We often start the really young kids – kindergartners, first and second grades – with the Navajo weaving presentation,” said Susana Jones, who was busy teaching a group of eighth-graders from Bloomfield, New Mexico, about Frida Kahlo on Monday. “We show them the fleece as it comes off the sheep, how to card and spin the wool to see how yarn is made and then they do a project on small looms. They’re often studying patterns at that age, so this is perfect.”
While teaching about Kahlo, Jones managed to include terms like pantheism (a love of nature), background about the Aztec calendar and a concept rare in school.
“Art is about expression, not perfection,” she told the students. “It’s a matter of interpretation, there are no right or wrong answers.”
Most of the presentations include a hands-on project. For the Bloomfield students, it was to create a self-portrait, using symbolism in the Kahlo style if they so desired. As the docents handed out mirrors for the students to mimic one way Kahlo painted, more than one looked at the mirror, then pulled out their cellphones and took a selfie for reference, a sign of modern times.
A powerful part of the docents’ efforts, for both teachers and students, is the work they do at the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center, where art serves as both a creative outlet and a form of therapy.
“The youth are such a joy to be around and most of them are incredibly artistic,” docent Susie Bonds said. “They, in turn, look very forward to our presentations.”
The docents have built relationships with the students at DeNier that have led to invitations to GED graduation ceremonies, she said, calling it a “great honor.”
The group also works with seniors at Four Corners Health Care Center and Our Place, which provides adult day care for dementia patients. One of its newest programs, Creative Minds, is working with clients of Community Connections. Originally designed with one visit to the DAC each month, the program has proven so successful, it’s expanding to twice monthly in March, DAC Executive Director Cristie Scott said.
“Denna Carney leads that group,” Short said, “and she is very lively, very loving, so encouraging. She usually ties the lesson into the exhibits, and when they were here for the Cowboy (Poetry Gathering) show, they had great fun.”
The group has created age-appropriate lesson plans and portfolios, which include mounted poster-size examples of the artists’ seminal works, for 13 artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso and sculptor Frederic Remington.
Steve Walker, currently the lone male member, is a fan of Johannes Vermeer, and created a portfolio on the Dutch Golden Age painter.
“He also has a great love for Chinese art,” Short said. “So he has taught Chinese art history to the students studying Chinese at Miller Middle School.”
One of the docents’ goals is proving a little more difficult to achieve.
“We encourage the children to come back and visit the arts center with their parents,” Bagley said. “We don’t see much of that.”
The group needs more volunteers, Bagley said.
“We’re always recruiting,” she said, “and we train. You just have to love art.”