In between the lines: Dr. Ken Keffer’s group painting project teaches the art of originality

Posted by Centre News in Academics, News 31 Oct 2013

Anyone who has been inside the Campus Center has seen the eye-catching crazy-quilt version of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” painted by students from H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of French and German Ken Keffer’s French class. What they may not know is that another Renoir painting, “Le Bal au Moulin de la Galette,” is currently in the works, soon to be revealed elsewhere on campus.

This type of collaborative class painting project began in 2003 with Keffer’s French class, which at the time was witnessing the renovations of Sutcliffe Hall on campus.

keffer_painting2“We wanted to put up some sort of billboard outside of the construction that was a scene of conviviality and gathering that’s really part of the ethos of Centre,” explains Keffer. “Since we were studying the Impressionists in class, the project was the perfect way to talk about painting techniques in French and also experience some of these painting techniques firsthand.”

The painting had 12 panels, one for each student, and was displayed outside Sutcliffe, a location that Keffer explains was very appropriate, considering Impressionists painted outdoors.

Unfortunately, this first version of the group painting was, as Keffer puts it, “lost in a firestorm,” and now only photos of it remain. However, out of the ashes of this first attempt, a larger, more permanent version was painted in 2010 and now hangs in the Campus Center entryway.

For Keffer, the painting project resonates with French students on several levels. For one, they have something concrete about which to discuss not only specific painting techniques but also issues of art and culture.

He says, “We asked the question, ‘How representative is the painting of our college?’ This brought up discussions on inclusivity and skin-color. Our round-table discussion also talked about how Renoir’s work can be considered too pretty, too perfect.

“I really like splitting the discussion of the painting into social and technical issues,” he adds. “We can talk about the social implications of the painting first, and then we can focus solely on the technical aspects of putting paint on canvas.”

As a result of these discussions, decisions were made about how the copying of the famous work would proceed. Keffer’s students decided to take more liberties with paint colors and lighting to make their painting a unique version of the work rather than a precise mirror-image.

Another aspect of particular interest to Keffer is how each of the individual pieces of the painting fit together into a new, unique whole.

“We know that the finished product will be a reconstruction, a result of our puzzling over the painting,” he explains. “In a way, it suggests that the original painting in its beauty and perfection doesn’t really fit our lives, and we have to jumble it around and shake it up to get back to its true meaning.”

For Keffer, the finished painting, with all of its inconsistencies and inaccuracies is, in a way, better or truer than the perfect original version, because it has been filtered through the students and their unique thoughts and perceptions.

“I’ve given up the theme of originality and authenticity,” he says. “This new incoherent whole takes on a life of its own. In some ways, you’d rather look at the new version, because in comparison, the original is too perfect and too pretty. The differences and nuances in the reconstructed version reflect the differing perceptions of each student.”

Keffer is also intrigued by the slightly imperfect way all of the panels come together at the end—not every line will match up, and in some places these differences are very apparent.

“This isn’t a puzzle,” he says. “These pieces don’t fit together perfectly, but that’s all part of deconstruction. We’re unpacking this painting in such a way that we are learning things about it we never could have if it had been left intact. Breaking it apart and putting it back together creates a new meaning and a new whole.”

The project should be finished by early November, and will be framed and hung in the Combs Warehouse on campus, a very intentional choice for Keffer.

“The painting portrays a scene at the Moulin de la Galette dance hall; ‘moulin’ means windmill,” he explains. “The Warehouse is kind of our campus version of the Moulin de la Galette, because it used to be a hemp warehouse and served as a kind of place for dancing and socializing, much like the Moulin de la Galette.”

While Keffer expresses hopes that the unveiling and hanging of the group painting will bring some life back to a former hub of campus, he intends for the painting to also celebrate the closing of the United Way annual campaign, whose focus on diversity, inclusivity and unity parallels his goals for the painting.

Ultimately, the group painting project represents a classic example of the kind of experiential learning for which Centre is known.

“With this project, we’re not just looking at or talking about this painting, we’re ‘doing’ it,” Keffer says. “The doing part is about taking the painting on its own terms, as color and canvas, and experiencing it from the inside out.

“This class is somewhere between a French class and an art class,” he continues. “It’s a more social and interactive way of reflecting on art. It’s a sort of hybrid, just like the painting we are creating.”

By Mariel Smith

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