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Art and soul

High school students make connections at Queens museum
New York Teacher
Erica Berger
A student studies the marionettes that are part of artist Wael Shawky’s exhibit and video on display at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City.
Students discuss the unusual marionettes, which are also featured in the artist’s video on the ancient roots of modern conflicts.
Erica Berger
Students discuss the unusual marionettes, which are also featured in the artist’s video on the ancient roots of modern conflicts.

What are the odds that a group of urban high school students, many of whom had never set foot in an art museum before, would love an avant-garde museum devoted to new and challenging artwork?

It may seem unlikely, but students from Harlem’s Mott Hall HS were exuberant in their praise after visiting MoMA PS 1 in Long Island City last spring.

“I can relate to the art; it’s about things made now, not ancient stuff,” said 11th-grader Mohamed. He said he also enjoyed creating his own artwork while at the museum. “We’re making our own contemporary art while viewing contemporary art,” he said.

The class trip was part of the pilot Tour and Workshop Program created by Rose Horn, his art teacher, and the museum. It is expected to be offered to more schools this fall.

MoMA PS 1 has ever-changing exhibits and workshops “focused on themes of identity and culture, which resonate for students,” said Zach Bowman, the senior manager of visitor services at the museum and Horn’s collaborator.

The new program is heavy on discussion, whether students are viewing or creating art.

“As long as the students have questions to ask, they don’t have to have answers,” Bowman observed.

During their visit on May 15, the Mott Hall HS students first viewed Wael Shawky’s artwork, which includes wildly inventive marionettes, both antique and modern, that depict participants from all sides during the Crusades. Then students viewed Shawky’s video of the Crusades featuring the marionettes displaying all manner of treachery, intrigue and brutality.

Following the screening, students talked about the historical conflict, its relevance today and the importance of point of view.

“Who gets to tell the story?” asked Horn, as she guided the students in a discussion of the maxim that history is always written by the winners, the meaning of the strings on the marionettes, and how context and point of view come into play.

The workshop portion of the program continued the perspective motif. Students were paired up as they entered a classroom stocked with art supplies to draw portraits of their partners. After the students had finished those portraits, Horn told them to “take back your own story.”

Students then took the portraits their partners had drawn of them in order to add in the details and make the changes that transformed the works into meaningful self-portraits.

Standing in front of their classmates, each student described his or her portrait/self-portrait and answered questions from their peers and teachers in a critique format familiar to college art students everywhere.

When it was her turn, one 9th-grader said, “I made one side lighter, one side darker. What I mean is, I could be nice, but if you trigger me, I can be mean or have a nasty attitude.”

All in all, the day was a success.

“I learned that I like to draw here — I never knew it before this class,” said another student.

MoMA PS 1 is easy to reach by train or bus and not crowded. The artwork is appropriate for high school-aged students. While the museum is free for New York City public school students, groups of 10 or more must book an appointment in advance. The museum charges $10 per student for a museum educator to guide a group of New York City public school students; groups must be 20 or fewer students.

For the hands-on Tour and Workshop Program, a two-hour visit will cost $350 for a group of up to 20 New York City public school students. For more information, visit or email

Related Topics: Field Trips