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Close Looking with the CMA’s Student Guide Program: Get to Know Marisa DeMaria

Key Jo Lee, assistant director of academic affairs, Marisa DeMaria, CMA student guide, Hannah Boylan, CMA student guide
February 28, 2020
The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890). 1947.209
CMA student guide Marisa DeMaria

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Student Guide Program trains college students to personally engage museumgoers using close-looking techniques. Through this tour-based program, the students aim to demonstrate how works of art from every period and culture around the world are relevant to how we see, think, and live. The program is generously supported by the Walton Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation through the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative (DAMLI).

In this recurring series, The Thinker is showcasing CMA student guides, including interviews conducted by one of their peers and short essays focusing on an object of their choosing from the CMA’s permanent collection that exemplifies the ways slow and close looking have impacted their experiences as both a guide and viewer.

Last month we featured an interview with and essay by art history major Raven Navarro (Cleveland State University class of 2022) on a must CMA highlight from the museum’s Impressionist art collection, Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (Agapanthus). This month showcases an interview with communications and art history major Marisa DeMaria (Cleveland State University class of 2021), a senior student guide who has been in the program since it began in 2018, and her personal exposition on Vincent van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy). Fellow senior student guide Hannah Boylan (Case Western Reserve University class of 2020) conducts the interview.


HB: How has slow/close looking changed your experience of art?

MD: Slow looking as a concept has made art far more interactive, which has helped me when I have led public tours. It has given me a lot of insight into how other people can educate me as I acquaint them with close looking. It has taught me to listen very closely to the audience, to slow down, and to pursue what they say to help shape the discussion or activity.

CMA student guide Marisa DeMaria exploring the Andy Warhol Museum.

HB: How do you bring your background and experience to your work as a student guide? How does it feel to work in such a diverse group of students?

MD: At first I was only comfortable with artworks that I knew a lot about, and I may still choose art that I am more familiar with, but my training has taught me that I can go to any art object and lead a close-looking session there too.

Working with a diverse group of students — with such a variety of majors — is great. In the first year, I was surprised by the small number of art history students, as there were only a couple, but now there are maybe a handful. And it was amazing to see the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students interested in the program! Their perspectives have definitely influenced mine. When I’m teaching in the galleries, I can now see how humanities and STEM fields touch upon each other in art.

HB: What is the most challenging part of the program? Most rewarding?

MD: Not knowing how people are going to respond to our tours is challenging. Because close looking is somewhat spontaneous, we can’t make a perfect script of what we are going to say during a tour. Instead, we listen to and consider the audience’s ideas and may modify our plans based on those responses. The most rewarding part of leading close-looking tours has been the surprising willingness of the audience members to be interactive. I have witnessed them slowing down and absorbing the artwork in a completely new way.

CMA student guide Marisa DeMaria in the Harvard Art Museum conducting training for HAM student guides.

HB: How do you feel that you contribute to the CMA’s mission?

MD: As a senior student guide, I help people who might not know a lot about art, or who may feel intimidated by it, become more comfortable in the museum. I do this by emphasizing that it’s okay to not know everything about art and by teaching them a few ways to engage an artwork using tools they already have. We are taught to respect our audience’s knowledge regardless of whether they recognize a specific artist’s name or know the period in which a work was created. Student guides learn that everyone can access a work of art, and we strive to show our tour participants how to do that.

HB: How did your involvement and participation in this fit into your broader goals for developing yourself?

MD: Close looking fits into any career. It has taught me to slow down and pay far closer attention to not only what I observe but also to how and why I may perceive things in a particular way. It has even helped in my personal life to navigate disagreements or develop new skills. Close looking has also taught me to build discussions and activities based on audience response rather than to only convey the information I think the tour members should know.

Visitor working on close-looking activity in the gallery.

HB: Why is close looking an important (or, dare I say, enjoyable) skill today?

MD: In today’s art museum, everything — and everyone — moves really fast. People come to the CMA with friends or alone and they take pictures of the artworks and themselves. Visitors often move swiftly, walking around the serene galleries, spending a few moments looking at a work. But few spend more than a few moments at any one object. Sometimes we need encouragement to take the time to deepen our understanding. Close-looking tours offer an opportunity to do just that. Close looking can turn the museum and its collection from something foreign into something very personal.


This interview was conducted by CMA Student Guide Hannah Boylan (Case Western Reserve University class of 2020).


The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890). Oil on fabric; 73.4 x 91.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1947.209

Engaging Our Humanity by Engaging Art: Close Looking at Van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), by Marisa DeMaria

Here we are, watching, seeing, feeling, gazing. We are looking outside. Perhaps we are seeing this moment from a window, a home, a swing, or just as we pass by. Perhaps we aren’t there at all and this is a dream. Think about who you may be and where you are as you see this moment in time. We are not imagining a framed painting on a museum wall. It’s as if we can close our eyes and imagine or reminisce about a time that once was or will be.

Although it seems like it might be a slow day around us, there is action, there are people, and there is life. As subtle as these details may be, the texture and color of the details that surround us capture our attention. Imagine a crisp fall afternoon. The chill is bearable, but the cold air is sure to touch you. As you navigate this scene, slowly looking, you can see the cool, gray air leaving your lips as you breathe. This day reminds you of autumns past. The sky’s light is overcast and lands subtly on the yellow that is all around. The yellow seems to be behind every color that you see. What are you seeing exactly?

There are trees so colossal that everything else here seems so small. These trees bellow in the center of this landscape. They are massive in their trunk size and bold in their color. They are like trees you’ve never seen before. The trunks have deep, black lines running up and down. In between these lines is a mixture of blues, yellows, oranges. All of this comprises the outermost trunk. These are recognizable trees, although new to you. What about them makes them foreign yet so familiar? The trunks turn into broad branches, twisting and turning toward the sky. Branches then grow into wonderful yellow and orange foliage, a collection of warm hues. The foliage is so abundant that it seems to be occupying the sky.

There are barriers on the opposite side of the trees; between the two is some sort of dip. There is a reflection in this dip, maybe a river or mud from a rainy day. It is here that our eyes drift toward the ground again. Are we alone in this place? There are people here, faces blurred. Behind the trees, two women walk side by side. They are adorned in long, elegant dresses and fancy hats. They are traveling through the layers of straw that lie behind the tree. From where we are standing, sitting, watching — whatever it may be — is this straw touching us? Are pieces of it stuck to our shoes or blowing past our faces? There are traces of two men in the straw as well, on foot; they are so light and translucent, it’s almost as if they are merely ghosts. Why do they look this way to us? Maybe the wind is overtaking them. In line with the colossal trees are laborers, one a man bent over, tending to a wagon. He is working hard, perhaps his back is strained. It is like we caught him mid-job. We can ponder his work and his life.

Considering all our senses when we approach a work of art can be transformational. A painting is no longer a flat object on a wall but instead becomes an interactive world surrounding us.

Close-looking techniques have taught me to be creative in the way I think about art and art history. In order to mentally navigate an image, I’ve needed to utilize some basic problem-solving skills and develop additional observation skills, which have enhanced my ability to think critically in my classwork and in my life in general. These are intellectual muscles that any person, in any profession, must exercise at some point in their life and work. I have found that learning about slow and close looking pertaining to art has encouraged me in areas of my life outside the museum. Just as I gave The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy) 10 minutes of my time, I see the importance of taking more time to listen to people, to collaborate thoughtfully on problems, and to seek to understand without urgency. Skills we acquire from interacting with art we then bring back to our studies, our homes, our relationships, and our jobs. Stopping to rest, contemplate, and embrace the creative process is life-giving. Close looking teaches us how to engage not only with art but also with humanity.

Image courtesy Robert Muller for Cleveland Museum of Art.

Student-guided close-looking tours — free and open to the public — occur every second, third, and fourth Friday of the academic year at 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. Student-guided tours offer a completely new way of connecting with the collection in fun, active, and informal ways. Participants are encouraged through discussion, writing, and drawing activities to consider what they see and why they see it as such; the tours are less about the specific histories of artworks and more about building and expanding one’s observation skills.