Freshman Seminar Puts Art—and Lives—in Context

November 4, 2010

It’s not often that anyone wants to repeat the first semester of freshman year—figuring out how to make friends, how to “shop” for classes, and then how to succeed in them are all challenges of those early months on campus. But the students in Jessica Helfand’s Art 001 freshman seminar, Studies in Visual Biography, wouldn’t hesitate. “I miss it,” says Hana Omiya JE ’13, who took Art 001 in 2009, the first year it was offered. There were only six students then, a number that has swelled to 15 this year. But the growth in enrollment has not changed the level of enthusiasm: as Ben Scheuer TC ’14, a current student, describes it, the class is “an awesome opportunity to explore so many different venues of art.”

Helfand ’82, MFA ’89 (a talented and award-winning graphic designer, lecturer in art, and author of the 2008 book Scrapbooks: An American History) conceived of the class as a way to unite the intellectual content of an academic seminar with the creativity of an art class, and created the first freshman seminar in the art department. Her interest in “visual biography” began as a graduate student at the School of Art, where she became “kind of obsessed” with investigating people’s lives through their material ephemera.

Jessica Helfand shows the Yale University Press book Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage to her students in Art 001, as teaching assistant Lauren Adolfsen (center) and Maria Kozanecka TC’14 look on. All photos courtesy of Abraar Karan ES’11.

In Studies in Visual Biography, students respond to archival materials using creative methods: “any media we want to use,” as Scheuer says. The seminar meetings alternate between classroom/studio time and visits to places as varied as Grove Street Cemetery, the Arts of the Book Collection in the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, the Yale Center for British Art, and Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. By encouraging her students to delve into a wide range of sources, Helfand teaches them that “research is not Wikipedia. It’s looking at real, tangible objects and artifacts of all kinds.”

The class also focuses on writers and artists from the early 20th century, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. One day in late October, the class met in the basement of Beinecke for a class on Stein. Led by Helfand and Timothy Young, a Beinecke curator, the students learned more about the author’s life through encounters with Yale-owned objects from her estate: a flamboyant, multicolored vest; her personal photographs from the World War II years; hand-written journals and postcards; and images of the Paris apartment she shared with Alice B. Toklas. The students laughed at times, enjoying the process of puzzling out clues to Stein’s unique personality.

The next class meeting was more somber: the students watched video testimonies from the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust survivors. The midterm assignment, Helfand told her students that day, is to choose one of the video subjects and create a biographical portrait. Given the seriousness of the subject and the freedom in media, this would be an intimidating assignment for many students who have been at Yale for longer than these freshmen, but the students in this class seem to embrace the challenge.

Members of Art 001, Studies in Visual Biography, participate in a spatial awareness exercise during class.

“We're a motley crew of photographers, painters, and people who have little or no previous experience in visual art,” Cathy Huang MC ’14 says. But the class coalesces in weekly critiques and in the discovery of each other’s art. Art 001 students describe the gasps that come from seeing what others can do; at the same time, they learn what they, themselves, are capable of. Omiya, the 2009 student, still keeps a sketchbook filled with collages, even though, a year later, it’s no longer required for class. Now an architecture major because of Art 001, she says that the class changed her life, not just her major. “Jessica made me fall in love with Beinecke. She made me fall in love with art.”

This story was written and reported by Elisa Gonzalez ’11. A senior in Pierson College, Elisa is an English major in the Writing Concentration.

A video made by students in the fall 2009 Art 001 can be viewed online.  To read other Yale College news stories, see our archive.