Fun with Phoenixes at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

As part of a new initiative to bring the Rubin’s educators together to learn more about what other museums around the city are doing for their K-12 audiences, the Education and Engagement staff recently visited the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The Cathedral currently has a contemporary art installation on display by Chinese artist Xu Bing entitled Phoenix, and the Rubin educators had a great opportunity to take a special tour of the installation and the Cathedral and to create Phoenix related art in the Cathedral’s amazing Medieval Arts Workshop.

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Marnie Weir, the Cathedral’s Co-Director of Public Education, led the tour herself. Using a great deal of inquiry, the group discussed mythological animals, stories about Phoenixes from around the world, and the intersection of Chinese contemporary art in a sacred space. “I really enjoyed seeing the combination of secular art in a religious space, since we tend to be religious art in a secular space,” observed Jeremy McMahan, one of the Rubin’s part-time educators. It was  certainly interesting to talk about how the installation, which has traveled to many different venues, was impacted by the towering Gothic architecture in which it was housed, and how the piece might look very different in another setting.

The highlight of the tour was when Marnie let the group to an elaborate wooden door which opened onto a narrow, winding, staircase. The group then ascended to the triforium level of the Cathedral to view Phoenix from above. It was amazing to witness how the sculptures changed depending on the perspective of the viewer. The group had a chance to see the sculptures from standing directly under them, to looking at them from the far end of the nave, to looking down upon them from the triforium.

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After the tour was finished, the Rubin educators descended all the way into the undercroft of the Cathedral where the Medieval Arts Workshop is located. There, they met up with Dana Settles, the Cathedral’s Education Coordinator (and a grad school colleague of the author of this post). In conjunction with the Phoenix installation, Dana developed the Phoenix Arts Workshop, geared toward K-12 audiences. The workshop comprised a series of small art projects related to both the Phoenixes and the Chinese culture from which their creator came as well as to the Medieval history of the architecture of the Cathedral. The Rubin educators had the opportunity to practice calligraphy in three different ways, to create mythical beasts out of clay, and to draw real animals based on descriptions from Medieval bestiaries.

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Even though many who attended this trip don’t often have the opportunity to lead school tours at the Rubin Museum or to participate in the Rubin’s many workshops, it is always  helpful for everyone on the Education staff to have experiences that bring them back to what is the core of what we all strive to do: teach and learn about art. Creativity is key in this line of work, and there is no better way to exercise creativity than to visit other museums…lots of them. Stay tuned to see where the Ed staff will end up next!

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