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Community Connection: Combining Two Passions

April 28, 2011
One of the great things about working with volunteers is the opportunity to meet people with a wide range of interests, experiences, and passions.  Last fall, I interviewed Deborah Harvey, one of our Go van Gogh volunteers.  I am pleased to introduce Jennifer McNabb, another Go van Gogh volunteer, who has managed to combine two of her passions through our outreach program.  
 
Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m British, and I’ve been in the U.S. for twenty years, in Dallas for nineteen years.  I’m a longtime visitor to the DMA.   When my work situation opened up seven years ago, I was looking for a way to volunteer in the arts.  I have a background in community arts from the 1980’s in England, when I helped set up and run a group studio for artists called Red Herring Studios.  We took over derelict buildings that were to be demolished, converted the buildings to studio spaces, and had an exhibition space too.  Red Herring put visual arts on the map in Brighton and has given birth to other fabulous organizations like Fabrica.  

Jennifer with her father and sister at Chesworth Studios in West Sussex, England.

What do you like most about Dallas?

I think what I like most about Dallas is the very vivid cultural life here.  We have great museums (the Nasher Sculpture Center, the DMA, The Crow Collection of Asian Art), and I love the way the Arts District has been developing with the AT&T Performing Arts Center and the expansion of Booker T. Washington High School.  I don’t come from a place where you have zoning; in London, these places are all in different parts. Also, I love the fact that Ft. Worth is just a few miles away with another bunch of fabulous museums. Although Dallas is a town that tends to be on the map business-wise, it is also on the map culturally.  I live in Oak Cliff, so it’s very easy to get to these places.

Tell us about your relationship with the DMA.

I started out by coming to your office and asking what I can do to volunteer with the DMA.  At the time, I couldn’t give the amount of time necessary for the docent program, but I did like the idea of the Go van Gogh program.  I have a background in teaching, and I thought it would be nice to get back into the classroom.  I like that the DMA has this type of in-reach and does such a good job at taking art into the classroom, getting kids excited about it, and hopefully encouraging teachers to take kids to the museum more.  Teaching is something I feel passionate about along with the visual arts – I come from a family of artists and I like the fact that I can go into the classroom and do all the fun stuff, and the kids love me for it. 

I’d been doing Go van Gogh for three or four years when a friend said to me one day, “You should come to this meeting about Resolana and get involved with this organization that provides programming for incarcerated women.”  I am also passionate about prison reform.  When I saw the creativity workshops they did, I thought yes, this combines two things I feel strongly about.  I got involved almost immediately.  After I had been to the jail a few times, I spoke with you and Amy about the possibility of the DMA doing something in partnership with Resolana.  I was looking for ways I could take the DMA into the jail, and you suggested trying some of the programs we teach in the schools. 

Jennifer leads the Arts of Mexico Go van Gogh program with Resolana participants.

What are the greatest benefits and challenges to presenting Resolana programs?

I was very aware I was teaching a different population, but in some respects they’re kind of similar.  Being in the jail frees them up, and they are very good about trying anything you suggest.  They don’t have self-editing about what is right and what is wrong in a class setting.  The women are willing to try most things; I don’t get the same resistance I might get from sixth-grade students.  The difference is, these are adults, and I didn’t want to make them feel I was doing baby stuff with them.  I had to adapt the programs because certain supplies are not allowed in the jail.  I also tried to get the discussion portion much more pitched toward their level.  I would not lead too much, and tried to give them space.  I am also in the Master of Liberal Studies program at SMU, and I took a class with Carmen Smith, who worked at the DMA for twelve years before working at the Meadows Museum.  I learned a number of techniques for talking about art with groups of people that museum educators use and started to use some of those techniques.  What I learned about in class went straight to the jail, and I saw a remarkable difference in the quality of the discussions. 

What is capturing your time and attention at the moment?

I’m always reading something fascinating, but work right now is capturing a lot time and attention.  We now have a pod in the jail dedicated to women interested in attending Resolana classes – they all live together.  It means we have doubled the number of women we see every week, so I’m trying to increase our number of volunteers as quickly as I can.  I am also trying to develop a program to train volunteers, using Go van Gogh as a model.  The Meadows Museum has donated their studio for training sessions. That takes up a lot of my time.

My other big passion is learning. I get to take classes in all kinds of things in the Liberal Studies program. I’m knee-deep in anthropology at the moment, and I’m writing a paper about systems of value in the U.S. and in the western world in general, and how that compares to other value systems when looking at works of art.

Melissa Nelson
Manager of Teaching in the Community

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