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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Beauford in "Psychology and Art" - Part 1

This course will explore selected topics in the psychology of art within the context of 19th and 20th century painting (primarily painters working in Paris). Artists of particular interest include van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Monet, Delaney, and Modigliani.

The above statements are found at the beginning of the course description for the Kentucky Institute for International Studies* course entitled "Psy 299 Topics: Psychology of Art" being held in Paris this summer.

Dr. Robert Brubaker, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, is leading this study abroad course. This year, he is including Beauford in the syllabus for the first time. He contacted Les Amis to ask about resources and materials that he could use to enhance his students' experience.

Professor Robert Brubaker, Eastern Kentucky University
© Discover Paris!

I suggested the "Beauford Delaney's Montparnasse" commemorative walking tour to Dr. Brubaker and arranged to meet him to learn more about the course. He graciously agreed to an interview about his interest in Beauford and his reasons for including Beauford in "Psychology and Art."

During the course, Dr. Brubaker and his students discuss a number of questions/issues/beliefs about the relationship between an artist’s psychological functioning and his/her work. To bring these issues to life and to provide some context, Brubaker likes to introduce the students to several artists who were known to have struggled with psychological disorders. He looks for artists with personal stories that will engage students and help them recognize the complexity of the relationship between mental illness and creativity.

Knowing something about the artist as a whole person and not someone defined by illness enriches our understanding of his/her work. It helps begin to dispel stereotypes about people with mental illness and about artists.

Because the course is taught in Paris, Brubaker selects artists who have some connection to the city. He says that being able to show students where the artists lived and worked, their favorite hangouts, their grave sites, scenes they painted, etc., further humanizes them. Two artists he always incorporates into the class are Vincent Van Gogh and Maurice Utrillo. Others, e.g., Modigliani, Toulouse Lautrec, Gauguin, Picasso, are included to illustrate certain points.

Until recently, Brubaker had only been aware of Beauford in the most general sense from studying art history. He knew Beauford was an American artist and was familiar with a few of his works (notably Can Fire in the Park). He found that Beauford’s life story, his struggles with mental illness, his circle of friends, the aesthetic appeal of his art, his connection with Paris, and his origins in Tennessee (not far from Kentucky) made him an excellent addition to the course.

Over the past few months, Dr. Brubaker read David A. Leeming’s biography, Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney, and the catalogs from two Delaney exhibits, Beauford Delaney: From NY to Paris and Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow. He has read most of the posts on the Les Amis blog and a number of miscellaneous articles discovered online. He is adding Amazing Grace and the Les Amis blog to the bibliography for the course.

The blog led Brubaker to visit Knoxville to see the Gathering Light exhibition currently on display at the Knoxville Museum of Art prior to bringing his students to Paris. I asked him how that visit informed what he is having the students explore regarding Beauford's life and art. He responded:

The students and I explore the nature of creativity and the creative process – Do creative persons share particular personality characteristics, is creativity an inherent trait (some people have it, some don’t) or is it a skill to be learned? do creative ideas spring forth fully formed (inspired) or are they the product of experimentation and shaping and hard work?

What I found particularly interesting in the exhibition from a psychological perspective were the sketchbooks that are on display. I’m fascinated by artists’ sketchbooks because I think they often give us some insight into their thought processes. The quick sketches and notes suggest how the artist plays with ideas prior to putting brush to canvas or paper. For the same reason, the series of self-portrait studies were particularly interesting to me. I will share those observations during our class discussions.

I mentioned to Dr. Brubaker that "Psychology and Art" is a perfect example of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) education and asked him how much time he has his students spend looking at art during the course. He said they spend a great deal of time looking at images of art that accompany class presentations/lectures and they go on excursions to art museums to see works in person.

In addition, Brubaker uses images of paintings to illustrate how our brains process visual art – the neurological, perceptual, and cognitive processes that allow us to see, understand, and respond to a visual stimulus as a piece of art. When he mentioned that he had not been able to identify any works by Beauford that are on display in Paris, I organized a visit to the Galerie Intemporel so he and his students could see Beauford's art in person.

The image below shows Dr. Brubaker (far left) the students, and gallery owner Laurence Choko (far right) standing in front of Beauford's Portrait of Vassili Pikoula.

Professor Brubaker and KIIS "Psychology and Art" students at
Galerie Intemporel
© Discover Paris!

Portrait of Vasilli Pikoula
(1970) Oil on canvas
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

KIIS students at Galerie Intemporel
© Discover Paris!

To successfully complete the Psychology and Art course, students must write a final examination consisting of eight questions that Brubaker provides in advance. These questions reflect important questions studied by psychologists and others interested in art and artists. Brubaker expects students to describe various theories and points of view held by the experts and to present and evaluate the evidence supporting those positions. As an example, he cites the great interest in the question of whether the incidence of psychopathology is greater among artists and other creative people than it is in the general populations. There are published studies supporting this proposition and studies that disagree.

Brubaker says that because debates surrounding these questions often focus on criticisms of the methodology employed in the scientific studies used to explore them, there is no one "correct" answer for any of the exam questions.

At the end of our interview, Brubaker emphasized that he has only begun to study Beauford's life and work. "As we consider Delaney in the context of the psychology of art, I will be learning along with my students," he said.

Professor Brubaker admires Delaney paintings at Galerie Intemporel
© Discover Paris!

*KIIS is a consortium of colleges and universities in Kentucky and some surrounding states, including Eastern Kentucky University.

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