WILLIAMSTOWN — As her classmates began moving on to another exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art, Mount Greylock Regional School seventh-grader Luka Lash-St. John lingered in front of an 8-foot-by-6-foot oil painting titled "Jerome," circa 2014, by Titus Kaphar. It is a delicate, golden-hued, yet very up-close portrait of an African-American man's face, based on a mug shot Kaphar discovered while searching for his estranged birth father's prison records.
The portrait completely contrasted the girl's slender frame and lighter skin tone as she stood before it, tilting her head in contemplation.
"I really like looking at all the art. I think it's working really well in showing us different perspectives, and showing us some new things we might not see in our daily lives," Luka said.
Her seventh-grade class is part of a network of middle school students in Northern Berkshire to take part in the Creating a Culture of Respect initiative. The program partners these students with exhibits and educators at the Clark Art Institute, the Williams College Museum of Art and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
The initiative, established in 2013 by a leadership team at the Clark, has evolved from a collaboration with the French American Museum Exchange — it's a consortium of 15 French and 15 American museums — to address social matters of violence and conflict.
Creating a Culture of Respect uses art as a vehicle to expand awareness of human relationships, perspectives, and choices in confronting conflicts and making decisions. Since its inception, the three museums have offered participating schools Mount Greylock, Drury High School and Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School free access and transportation to the middle school students and their teachers.
Luka said the experience differs from a typical field trip where students are left to explore art or exhibits on their own and are given basic biographical and historical information about artists and their work. Through the Creating a Culture of Respect initiative, docent-educators engage the students by asking them to make their own observations, to share their feelings about the art they are viewing and to talk about how the subject relates to them and to the world.
"When we were at the Clark, I think I learned a lot more about myself and how I look at things, but I'm not sure how else I can explain that," Luka said.
Clark Director of Education Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer works with senior educator Amanda Bell Goldmakher to coordinate the program and curriculum. In an email, Tulgan Ostheimer described the mission of the program as "trying to encourage children to understand the power of their own and other's human experience (both individual/nuances and shared) as a source of understanding, decision making and shaping their own direction and life as they transition into a more independent time of their life."
At Mount Greylock, the students explore the theme of Creating a Culture of Respect inside and outside the classroom. Teachers facilitate curriculum by prompting their students with exploratory questions of "Who am I?" "How can I be the best version of myself?" "Who are we?" in relationship to their class, their grade, their school, the Berkshires and globally; and finally, "How do I find my place?" in it all.
In English teacher Liza Barrett's class, for example, they just finished reading and discussing the book "Wonder," the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio about a fifth-grade boy with severe facial differences entering a mainstream school for the first time.
Barrett said the Creating a Culture of Respect initiative "is not just about teaching kids about going to museums. It's about how you have to try new things and open yourself up to new experiences."
It's also about building trust and learning to navigate uncomfortable situations.
During Thursday's visit to the Williams College Museum of Art, docent Elba Obregon, a Williams sophomore, asked students to pair up, with one having to close their eyes while letting a classmate lead them to a painting in a gallery. The student then opened their eyes, and with a clipboard, pencil and paper in hand, and, facing away from the painting, had to draw the artwork solely using the descriptions given to them by the classmate who was looking at the painting.
Through the giggles and frustrations, students soon realized the importance of listening, and also attention to detail. The better the communication and the more inclusive the description, the better the drawing.
"It's always better to see all the little colors and details you might miss when you're passing by," Obregon said.