Ideas in Flight

One of the reasons that students struggle in the humanities is that they are seeking scientific certainty.  We have true knowledge in the humanities, but it is very different from truth in science. 


When you come across something that you understand in history, the arts, and literature, do not seal it away in a box.  These truths are living; they must breathe. 

These ideas are mid-flight, like the pieces of a hanging mobile from the artist Alexander Calder (Untitled Mobile, 1976, National Gallery of Art).  His mobiles are light, airy, fanciful creations.  They are held together by principles not immediately grasped by the viewer.  And, as you move around them, the relationships between the shapes seem to change, making what seemed true moments before again an enigma.


Rewrite with Van Gogh

The new van Gogh “Repetitions” exhibit at The Phillips Collection brings to mind one of the most important tools for painters and writers alike: the rewrite. Van Gogh’s repetitions are rare in the art world, because each “repetition” is a fully formed masterpiece.


Road Menders, The Phillips Collection

These “repetitions” are works that writers can learn from. There was an age, from the invention of the printing press until the rise of the personal computer, when writers needed to worry about perfection – even in a first draft. They didn’t have the freedom to write and rewrite as we can now.

However, even with this modern convenience, students still agonize over a first sentence. They try to form the paper in their minds completely before plunking out even a single letter. Of course, we are all susceptible to this kind of perfectionism. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to conceive of a complex argument, complete with introduction and conclusion – before even choosing a font?


Large Plane Trees, Cleveland Museum of Art

Perhaps we can learn something from van Gogh. He saw the merit in painting and repainting the very same subject. This is a wonderfully scientific approach. He maintained a constant: the subject matter, while varying only small aspects of his approach: commitment, viewpoint, and characterization.

Van Gogh’s commitment to the work seems to grow from draft to draft. The first of two works was often more cursory, and seemed to have been completed in haste. By the second time, the brushstrokes were more finished and the lines stronger. Similarly, in the second draft of a paper, we become more confident in our ideas.

Van Gogh’s viewpoint was also revised from version to version. He changed his angle slightly to find a more interesting or compelling standpoint. This happens in writing as well. We may begin a paper thinking that we feel one way about the topic, only to discover midway through the project that our views are, in fact, quite different. In fiction writing, we may likewise begin a story focusing on a certain character, only to find that the true hero is operating in the wings.

A similar shift characterized the collecting of The Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips. He eschewed, even criticized, modern art – until he began to collect it voraciously. He wisely defended this about face, explaining: “Consistency is at best a stiff-necked virtue.

Look to Write


This exercise is included in Looking to Write, Writing to Look, a teaching kit developed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Division of Education.  

Tina Modotti, Woman of Tehuantepec, c. 1929

 Let’s Look:

 What shapes and patterns do you see in this photograph?

From what angle was this photograph taken? How does that affect the picture?

 Let’s Look Again:

 What might this woman be thinking and feeling? What makes you say that?

Imagine the rest of the scene around the woman. What is her story? 

Artful Vocab


First, choose a few words that describe the picture: poise, shadow, cheerful.  Using, find several new words that have similar meanings:

POISE: aplomb, deft, equanimity, serenity, tranquility

SHADOW: penumbra, obscurity, eclipse (v.), veil (v.), obfuscate, murky

CHEERFUL: winsome, effervescent, jaunty, vivacious, sanguine

(Test makers love to throw in verbs typically used as nouns.  For example: eclipse and veil, above.)

Now you can describe the picture in several sentences, making use of your extended vocabulary!

1. The vivacious dancer springs from the obscurity of the shadows with one deft leap.

2. The serenity of the murky corners of the dance studio was soon plucked away by the sanguine scuttling of a thousand toe shoes.


Visual Thinking Strategies and the SAT


Click the picture to view a video about VTS programs at the Boston MFA

As a graduate intern at The Phillips Collection, I was introduced to Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a method for drawing out discussions about art.  The method consists of three simple questions that ask viewers to discuss what they see and what they think it means.  

While there is no visual analysis section on the SAT, many skills employed in VTS carry over to the test.  Critical thinking skills are employed in discussions about visual art.  In fact, you would be surprised how contentious these discussions can be!

Each of the three questions asked of visitors in VTS employ skills found in the Verbal section of the SAT:

VTS Question #1 What is going on in this picture?

SAT Verbal question type: meaning

‘Meaning’ questions ask about the overall meaning conveyed by a passage.  In VTS discussions, viewers uncover the meaning of a work by talking about what they see.

VTS Question #2 What do you see that makes you say that?

SAT Verbal question type: function

‘Function’ questions ask students to examine a piece of information, quote, or paragraph and analyze the function it performs in the passage.  In VTS discussions, viewers are asked to examine their initial statements about a work of art and identify specific visual elements that contributed to their interpretations.

VTS Questions #3 What more can we find?

SAT Verbal question type: detail

‘Detail’ questions ask students to scour the passage for the specifics that drive its meaning. In VTS discussions, viewers are asked to take a second look to find elements of the picture not noticed at first glance.  You would be surprised by how much you miss! 

As a teacher in the video above mentions, VTS also helps students to realize that there can be many perspectives about the same issue.  This skill is helpful in the SAT, where students are asked to identify the author’s viewpoint.

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