Looking deeply: what we gain from taking a moment to observe
Having worked in museums and galleries around the world and as an art history lecturer, Dr Olivia Meehan is now the Object-based Learning Coordinator at the Faculty of Arts. We caught up with her to ask her all about object-based learning, and to find out more about her upcoming event for the Being Human Festival.
Thomas Goff Lupton (engraver), J.M.W. Turner (artist), From the Long Ships’ Lighthouse, Land’s End Nd, mezzotint, Baillieu Library Print Collection, the University of Melbourne. Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton 1959, 1959.3444.000.000.
First of all – what’s object-based learning?
Object-based learning (OBL) involves using specimens, objects, works of art, models and diagrams in the classroom. In the Faculty of Arts, I collaborate with colleagues to design curriculum that engages directly with material culture and knowledge. OBL is an embedded part of learning for those studying anything within the Bachelor of Arts, from languages, criminology, sociology and geography to classics and archaeology, and art history.
It’s a terrific moment when you see a student’s thinking shift as they are tasked with examining key ideas through cultural collections, as they unlock a range of possibilities through careful and considered looking. It’s also an essential tool for inspiring reflection and empathy in the higher education classroom and beyond.
Tell us about your upcoming event Field notes: meditations on observing nature through art. What is it, and how did the idea come about?
Field notes: meditations on observing nature through art emerged as a response to the devastating bushfires earlier this year. Walking from the tram stop to my office on campus through smoke haze and the distinct smell of bushfire I started to think about how to activate the skills we teach in observation to inspire students to look deeply at the world around them, to notice small changes and signals we might otherwise miss.
I had recently discovered the work of Adelaide neurologist Dr Fiona Kerr and her report The Art & Science of Looking Up and that inspired me to conceive of a way to connect OBL and the work I do around visual intelligence to the practice of looking at the world around us. In Field Notes we observe the representation of nature and weather in images and objects in the University of Melbourne’s special collections (prints and rare books), and I have also selected two works from the National Gallery of Victoria.
William Baillie (etcher), Rembrandt van Rijn (artist). Three Trees Struck By Lightning Nd, etching and drypoint, state ii, Baillieu Library Print Collection, the University of Melbourne, 1994.2038.000.000.
How did you first become interested in this kind of meditation, or meditation in general?
Essentially, I am interested in the idea of meditating on an image or an object for a sustained period of time. I also came across some wonderful guided meditations on art at the National Gallery London, Tate Britain and the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge – guided talks through a work of art based on meditative principles. I take the framework of a meditation and apply it to observing an image.
In my own research on Japanese art and culture I have spent much time studying the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism 臨済宗, in which the meditative practice requires a sense of connection to the outside world, to be grounded and in tune with your surroundings. I like to think of these OBL meditations as a method for cultivating imagination and language through observation.
Which are your favourite works of art featured in Field notes, and why are they special?
Preparing a shortlist of only four works was quite challenging. In searching for a work on each theme (the sky, trees, mountainscapes, the sea), I was looking to small interesting details, such as the way an artist depicts the formation of clouds, the angle of rain, a galaxy of stars, or the architecture of a bird’s wing. Or the intricate layers in shady canopies, ancient groves and woodland forests in the portrait of a tree. How an artist might convey the sensation of crossing an alpine range or how they illustrate tidal waves, lighthouse keeping, shipwrecks, shells and other life on the seas. One of my favourite works might be the 18-century Japanese two-fold screen from the National Gallery of Victoria entitled Bamboo, plum blossom and mandarin ducks with its floating golden clouds and elegant snow-capped bamboo.
Unknown. Bamboo, plum blossom and mandarin ducks 18th century. Two panel folding screen: ink, gold paint, pigments on gold leaf on paper, lacquer on wood, silk, brass, copper, paper. 171.0 × 186.0cm (overall). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Gift of Konfir Kabo through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2016. Photo: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Can I join Field Notes if I don’t know anything about art or meditation?
Everyone is welcome to join the meditations! I will guide you through a work of art by describing various details such as form and colour; a narrated tour to focus your looking. These meditations are intended to inspire looking and observation so they don’t require any experience or knowledge of art, and nor will they be lessons in art but will rather stimulate listeners to observe nature for themselves. I invite everyone to take a closer look at the way artists have represented the natural world in print culture, rare books and objects from the University’s special collections.
And finally, what can art teach us about being human?
I believe the act of reflection can provide a framework for us to become more creative and empathetic citizens. Art is a vital expression of our humanity, by observing and witnessing a work of art we activate it through our words, emotions and thoughts. Daily life is full of art as an expression of beauty, for change or practical purpose. To dive deep and take a closer look can really change your outlook and perspective.