Lifetime Learner: A Reynolda House Docent-Volunteer

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Lifetime Learner: A Reynolda House Docent-Volunteer

By Ann Rudkin, Reynolda Docent-Volunteer | @LearnReynolda

I enjoy leading tours as a docent-volunteer at Reynolda, so I thought Elizabeth Chew’s Survey of American Art class might provide me with some additional information to use with our guests.

Little did I know….

For years I have led visitors to our great landscapes: Frederic Church’s The Andes of Ecuador, or Albert Bierstadt’s Sierra Nevada, or Thomas Cole’s Home in the Woods. I’ve asked them to look at foreground figures, or a tall tree to one side, or to notice how our eyes are led into the distance by a river, a waterfall, or a road. Then in class I discovered that in the 1600s the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain established those elements as principles of the genre. I realized that I was noticing the appropriate characteristics of landscape, but now I knew why. What a great way to help our visitors understand not only these paintings but others they might see at Reynolda and elsewhere!

The class has also helped me look at portraits more insightfully. For example, I knew a bit about early American portraiture, but now I understand a work by Peale or Copley as not only a record of an individual’s appearance but also as a social statement about wealth, influence, career, or even family dynamic. I can ask questions of my student groups to help them discover a real person in a portrait, not just “that guy with funny hair,” as one young fellow described John Spooner by Copley. 

I also like the textbook’s examples that reinforce what we are seeing in class slides. Even more thought-provoking are the essays in the supplemental text. The pieces on Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer were especially interesting, drawing attention to details in Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, for example, that show not only how Eakins understood the surgery itself, but also how he emphasized or minimized details and arranged figures. On the other hand, I wanted to have a conversation with the author of the Homer essay, asking him to justify his assumptions about Homer’s intentions in The Life Line. The author was a renowned art critic and teacher who saw every line, shape, and color in the painting as having a subconscious message.

Who am I to question?  I am a learner and thinker, as I hope we can inspire our visitors to be.

As a docent-volunteer, I need to be ready to help a variety of groups discover and understand our wonderful collection of American art. We have visitors of all ages and interests. Some have a specific focus for their group. On a rare occasion we might have someone like the elderly gentleman who firmly stated as I led his group into the Museum, “We don’t like art!” In this class I am learning information and skills to help me meet those challenges and opportunities. Beyond that, it is making me think, and it will help me be a better museum-goer myself.

And, thanks to Elizabeth, it’s absolutely fascinating.


Ann Rudkin has been an active docent-volunteer at the Museum for 6 years. She lives in Winston-Salem, NC. She is currently enrolled in Survey of American Art: Painting, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, Architecture, a class only offered to members of the Museum and students at Wake Forest University.  Elizabeth Chew, the Betsy Main Babcock Director of the Curatorial and Education Division is the instructor. 


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