|Freshmen put on a happy vase at Centre
RELEASED: Oct. 3, 2002
DANVILLE, KY"I believe in the vase," says Ken Keffer, professor of French, German, and, for the last five years, humanities.
Not just any vase, of course. He means the ancient Greek vases, ca. 700-400 b.c., whose exquisitely detailed drawings tell us much of what we know about Greek culture and everyday life.
Three years ago Keffer hit upon the idea of having students create Greek vases of their own, using money from his National Endowment for the Humanities professorship to finance the raw materials. Some professors have joined him in the vase project; others have branched into soapstone carvings of Greek statues.
"It makes the study of abstractions tangible," he explains. "It's something students can put their hands on."
Which is why freshman Shelly Johnson '06, a prospective biology major from Marion, Ky., finds herself hanging out in the ceramics studio. One side of her vase will feature her copy of a 2,500-year-old vase painting of the warrior Ajax preparing to commit suicide. On the other she'll add her own touch: Ajax changing his mind and walking away.
"I have no background in art," she says. "Truthfully, I'd rather be taking science and math classes."
But she also admits it's "kind of fun."
"In class we've studied Greek art, and we're reading the Iliad, by Homer," she says. "A lot of the characters in the Iliad we see on the vases. It's neat that everything is related."
Of course, freshman humanities is not all about amateur artists painting vases. Students still read Homer, Aristotle, Plato, and Greek drama. They still have to write papers. But for Keffer, at least, the vase epitomizes the enduring relevance of ancient Greek culture for 21st-century 18-year-olds.
"All of our key ideas come from this three-hundred year period in this place in the Mediterranean," Keffer says. "Democracy. Philosophy and theater. The idea of sports, with the first Olympic games. It's all from this particular place in these particular years. It's amazing. It's like a miracle.
"And it's all right here on the vases."
For more about the NEH Vase Project, watch for the summer/fall edition of the Centrepiece.
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