Photos by Joyce Hill Stoner
July 18, 2022
Conservators use innovative Basquiat techniques to engage K-12 students
A team of alumni, faculty and students from the University of Delaware’s Department of Art Preservation has taken research on the celebrated modern artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to new territory, using his innovative methods to teach K-12 students how art and science this can come together.
An influential neo-expressionist, Basquiat had a graffiti background. He often used oil sticks—pen-like cylinders made of mineral wax and oil paint—which were sometimes only visible in his paintings under UV light.
Among the conservators who have found hidden inscriptions, symbols, and complex imagery in his work are Emily MacDonald-Korth, who graduated from the 2011 Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), and Kristin deGhetaldi, a 2008 WUDPAC graduate and a 2016 graduate of the UD conservation studies doctoral program. She and 1979 WUDPAC graduate Christine Daulton, a conservator who worked extensively on the paintings at the Andy Warhol Museum, worked with others to analyze the chemical composition and aging properties of the oil pencils used by Basquiat.
Also collaborating on the research are Joyce Hill Stoner, painting restorer and Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture at UD; Brian Baade, UD Assistant Professor of Art Conservation and 2006 WUDPAC graduate; Kelsey Marino, UD degree graduate and pre-program intern; Katie Rovito and Magdalena Solano, both members of the WUDPAC Graduating Class of 2022; and scientists at Museum Winterthur’s science research and analysis laboratory, where oil stick samples were analyzed.
Building on this research and supported by a grant from an anonymous private collector, the restoration team have developed lesson plans and toolkits for use in classrooms with younger children and adolescents. Art teachers in Delaware and Florida were the first to use the toolkits to show their students how science can tell us more about an artist’s work, history, and creative process.
“Our idea is that students can do an art project using oil pens to add hidden images [that are then revealed by black light]that becomes a springboard for talking about Basquiat and other artists,” said deGhetaldi.
Basquiat’s youth — he was only 27 when he died in 1988 — and unconventional techniques are traits teenage students can identify with, the conservators say. And classroom discussions about chemical analysis and the physics of light can show the intersection of art and science.
“I like the idea of using art to teach kids about science and how the two can work together, like they do in art conservation,” said Marino, the conservation technician for the project who created the toolkits and contacts K -12 schools about their interest. “A lot of people in this field haven’t been formally introduced to it; We just discovered it while taking college courses. We also want to give the kids a sense of Basquiat, who he was and how he worked.”
So far schools in Pennsylvania, Florida and Delaware have been involved. The project provides teachers with a lesson plan and other resources, including oil pens and a black light. In late May, a session was held in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where Daulton helped at this Pittsburgh-area school.
At Campus Community School, an elementary school in Dover, Delaware, art teacher Jennifer Boland used the toolkit’s resources in a lesson with her seventh graders. Boland, also an art history professor at Delaware Technical Community College, was already a fan of Basquiat’s work when she heard about the K-12 campaign and immediately jumped at the opportunity to share it with her students.
“She [the conservators] shared this amazing research they did with the story of the images and a great powerpoint they created to explain it,” said Boland. “As classroom teachers, we don’t always have time for this type of presentation, so it was wonderful to be able to use the presentation they developed.”
Over three days, her students learned about Basquiat’s work and how restorers use science to study art. They created their own creature-themed paintings, using oil pencils to hide images that could be revealed under black light.
The students were creative and enthusiastic about the project, Boland said. She described a painting of a dinosaur-like creature with staring eyes; Blacklight showed tears behind those eyes. Another creature had alarmingly large teeth; Under the black light, viewers could see tiny creatures that he had eaten.
“It was a good opportunity to combine science and art,” said Boland. “And the kids were really engaged. Weeks later they were still talking to me about that lesson every day.”