How I Spent My Summer: Ann Johns

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The University of Texas campus was quiet over the summer, while students and faculty spent their time working on projects around the globe. The College of Fine Arts was no exception. Students and faculty from all three departments took advantage of the break from coursework to pursue research, teach seminars or test the waters of a future career. Here is a glimpse into what happens when classes end, and the fun begins.

Department of Art and Art History Senior Lecturer Ann Johns, Regents' Outstanding Teaching Professor and Director of Learning Tuscany, led students on the study-abroad program in Italy.

Ann Johns, far left, listens to Nick Purgett, an Art History sophomore, present at the Sala del Mappamondo in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.Tell me a little bit about how you spent your summer in Tuscany.

We spend about six weeks in Italy. We spend the first two weeks in Tuscany, in Castiglion Fiorentino, in an old, restored convent known as Santa Chiara. It is not deluxe, but the view from the courtyard is about as breathtaking a view as any I’ve seen. During these first weeks, we get settled in classes, take Italian lessons, and go on numerous field trips. In the third week, we travel as a group to Rome for four days. After that, we have a five-day break. Students often visit either Venice or the Amalfi Coast/Sorrento area. In the final weeks, our pace is somewhat slower. We have fewer field trips and more time to work on projects, especially in the studio art class. At the end of the program, the students have an exhibition of their art at Santa Chiara. 

How many years have you worked with the Learning Tuscany program, and how have you seen the program evolve over that time?

I first taught with this program in 2004, when we were still called “Study in Italy.” This was a joint program with the School of Architecture and the College of Liberal Arts, and we had been sending students since the 1980s. By 2004, we were not serving many of our own majors, so we decided to form our own, department-based program, which we named Learning Tuscany in 2006, with our first summer session. I have taught and been ground director every summer, and I teach with a different studio faculty member each summer. Once we restructured the program, we were delighted to see so many of our own Art and Art History majors apply and participate in the program. Typically, about two-thirds of our approximately 24 students are (art) majors. I have worked with many people in the department and college—especially Andrea Keene—to augment the scholarship money we have available for these students, so increasingly, many of our majors are offered some sort of financial assistance. We are still based at the wonderful facility in Castiglion Fiorentino known as Santa Chiara, a very special place familiar by now to over 25 years of UT students! We focus less on “trying to see it all” and more on learning about the region of Tuscany. All students take both classes, and every year, I work closely with the studio faculty member to make sure that our curricula are integrated. This approach is not only better pedagogically, but it also fosters a strong sense of community over the course of the program. Every year, our students make lifelong friends and colleagues.

Is there any part of the trip that stands out to you as valuable for the students?

Our smaller size makes us very nimble when it comes to travel, so we are able to pack a lot into our excursions. Our main excursion as a group is to Rome. We stay in central Rome for four days. But we also visit Siena, Florence, Arezzo, Cortona and other cities, as all are easily accessible from Castiglion Fiorentino. Recently, we’ve been challenging the students by having them find their ways to more sites/sights without me leading. We make them read maps! Real maps! They learn how to think on their feet and problem-solve in ways that are very difficult to do in Austin. These are critical skills for our students to master, no matter their majors. We also talk a lot about how the experience of seeing the real art is entirely different from seeing a PowerPoint in Austin. We talk a lot about siting, spectatorship, scale, materials and all of the tangible issues that come up when viewing real objects and architecture. This is the best possible way to teach art history!

I'm sure it's a lot of work, but were you able to do anything fun this trip?

I helped to lead “Italy’s Hidden Treasures,” a trip co-sponsored by our department and the Flying Longhorns. We followed the “Piero della Francesca trail”—that is, a route through some of the more remote eastern portions of Italy to see the extraordinary work of this great Renaissance master. We had such a great group and so much fun! We looked at art, we ate lunch by the Adriatic, we took a funny, little funicular to the top of a mountain in Gubbio, we drank spritzes in the main square in Ravenna—it was fabulous! And with my students, we took a truly amazing trip to the quarries at Carrara. This excursion was suggested by my colleague Beili Liu, and it’s a keeper! We all donned hard hats and took Jeeps into a huge underground quarry that was like a giant cathedral of Carrara marble. It was a little scary and absolutely spectacular, and the students loved the trip!

Is there anything specific you hope students take away from the program?

I want them to come away with some specific knowledge of art history and Italian culture, of course. But more than this, I want them to gain confidence in themselves and their abilities. For some of them, the “scary” part is Rome; for others, the experience of making art is very unfamiliar; for still others, the language difference is disorienting. This summer, our students saw some extraordinary art and architecture—the Colosseum, the Duccio Maestà, the Florence Duomo and nearly every Caravaggio in Rome. But they also weathered train strikes, getting lost, communicating in a foreign language and living together for 6 weeks! I am always so proud of their accomplishments and growth. Also, after six weeks, our students truly feel as though Santa Chiara is their home. Actually, they feel this way after the first week! Many study abroad programs place students in apartments in foreign cities. At Santa Chiara, we live together, eat together and work together, not unlike an artistic residency program. This allows students to focus on their work and their new community of friends and colleagues. And the small size of the town of Castiglion Fiorentino allows our students to feel part of the community. Increasingly, it is difficult for American students to gain this sort of experience in the larger cities, which are overrun in the summer with tourists and other college students. Even on a six-week program, our students make friends in town and become part of the local culture.

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