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The art of seeing

When you look at something, do you really see it? That’s the question that Assistant Professor of Art History Sarah Archino posed to 10 Furman students who went with her to New York City in May as part of a course entitled Art and the Science of Observation.

The class, composed of all women whose majors ranged from pre-med to accounting, was designed to teach visual literacy through looking at art. Archino derived her concept from medical school programs that are now using art as a tool to teach nurses and medical professionals how to be better observers and how to use those observations to formulate conclusions about their patients. “I thought this would be a great skill for our undergrads to have,” she says. “Not only for health science students, but for liberal arts students as well.”

Archino chose her native New York City as the site for the class, given its wealth of art museums. For the first half of the day, the group went to look at art. Over the course of three weeks, they visited 10 different museums across the city, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, The Frick Collection, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“This class was not at all an art history class,” Archino elaborates. “We didn’t care at all who painted the works, or when or why. It was about what can you see and what conclusions can you draw just by looking.”

After spending a half-hour looking at one piece of art, Archino would ask the students: “What do you know? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we see?” Then they would discuss their reactions. “No matter how long you spent looking at a painting, there was always more you could find,” observes Stacey Dorogy ’18, a German and accounting major. “It was neat to see how opinions transformed over that time. Our initial impressions were almost always wrong.”

“We had to describe how a painting made us feel,” adds Jordan DeJaco ’18, who is studying health sciences. “I never thought of my emotions before in terms of looking at art.”

The group also spent time in the library of the New York Academy of Medicine, where they examined rare medical and natural-science texts from the 16th and 17th centuries. “Having that sort of access and proximity to historical artifacts was amazing for the students,” their professor reports. “There’s a fascinating story about how these illustrations developed, and the vision was communicated through art.”

In the afternoons and evenings, the students were free to explore the city from their base at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side. Their adventures included going to the Top of the Rock at night, taking a Circle Line Tour around the harbor, and seeing Broadway shows. They even went to the University Club for a Furman alumni cocktail party with President Elizabeth Davis. “We saw New York City as a place where people live, not just as a tourist destination,” says Zoie Green ’20, who plans to major in health sciences.

One thing Archino didn’t count on was how foreign most of the students found New York City. “The logistics of navigating the city were so different from their experiences,” the New York native notes. “It surprised me they found the city to be such a component of the program on its own.” By the end of the three weeks, however, the students had learned the ins and outs of the subway system and felt confident finding their way around Manhattan.

Students also realized that their perceptions had changed. They not only gained a deeper appreciation for art, but they came away with more self-awareness. “I learned so much in a short period of time,” admits DeJaco. “I look at problems more three-dimensionally now.”

“I learned to slow down and really look at things, which helped me to be more present,” Green alleges. “It was a really awesome trip!”


Last updated August 5, 2022
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director