Richness of Understanding

by Arthur Wheelock '65

''The Holy Trinity'' of art professors at Williams College
''The Holy Trinity'' of art professors at Williams College

The Williams community has been an essential element in my life as long as I can remember, not only through the stories told to me by my father and grandfather but also by the experiences of my brother, two sons and my step-daughter, all of whom spent four memorable years in Williamstown. The connections, however, go far beyond family to other alumni, teachers, coaches and administrators, from members of the admission office to presidents of the college, who encouraged me both while I was at Williams and during years thereafter. My own class of 1965 is particularly special to me. We share an extremely strong bond that has been nourished and enhanced by our remarkable class officers and class agents.

Trying to choose a story that encapsulates a special moment from this broad array of Williams connections and experiences is daunting. In the end, however, I thought it would be best to write about Lane Faison ’29, the legendary art history professor who had such an impact on me, not just on my career choice—I became an art history professor and curator—but also for establishing the values that I hold so dear. 

Lane Faison, I think it is safe to say, was not the type of teacher who left his students marveling at his knowledge and erudition. Rather, he taught us that learning is all about the joy of discovery. Whether leading a large lecture course with slides or a small seminar in front of a work of art, he had an ability to create a sense of wonder at the marvels of human creation. He usually did so rather obliquely, and his impact on us came at unexpected moments, catching us sideways when we least expected it. He wanted us to be comfortable in the presence of art, to understand its power and the ways artists used color and composition to help depict the visual world and, at the same time, how they suggest the poetry of life and the abstract ideas that expand our human consciousness. While Lane certainly viewed art as fundamental to the human experience, he wanted the journey of discovery to be fun and engaging. Little in his manner or demeanor would indicate that he was one of the extraordinary group of Monuments Men who helped save and preserve art treasures in war-torn Europe during World War II.

All of us who had the privilege of studying at Williams with the great triumvirate of art history professors—Lane Faison ’29, Whitney Stoddard ’35 and Bill Pierson—came away from that experience with a lifelong love or art and learning, even though few, including me, ever realized that art history existed as a discipline before freshman year. It is, thus, astonishing that so many classmates made their way to Stetson Hall to take art history courses. Remarkably, a large number ended up devoting their careers to the field, so many, in fact, that we became known, lovingly, as the “Williams Mafia.” These teachers, each of whom had his own distinctive personality and teaching style, not only introduced us to artistic wonders created in different cultures over the centuries, but together they provided us with a framework for engaging with the work in meaningful and compelling ways. 

Lane brought life to the marvelous collections of the Williams College Art Museum and the Clark Art Institute. His assignments forced us to confront these paintings, drawings and sculptures in ways that taught us to see and even to feel their special qualities. For example, in one assignment he asked us to compare the experience of viewing a painting and a reproduction of that very same work: in another, he asked us to write a poem that conveyed the emotional qualities a painting elicited (in my case, a work by Paul Klee). These approaches to teaching were ones that I internalized, and, over the years, I challenged my own students with Faison-styled assignments.

When Lane was in front of his beloved works, he would often recount stories about them and/or how they came to be in these collections. His narratives were often indirect and explored the “byways” of history that he loved so much. Sometimes, in fact, it was hard to know where he was going with them, filled as they were with recollections of experiences and reactions he had had to the paintings in question. As he would come to the end of these digressions, he would lower his head so that he could peer over his black-framed glasses, a stance that revealed the twinkle of his eyes, which, combined with the slightly quizzical look on his face, would let us know that we had just shared a very personal moment of his own journey of discovery. We soon came to realize from moments like these that learning is far more than knowing facts and figures; it is a process with all sorts of detours and roundabouts, one that would nevertheless add immeasurably to our richness of understanding. We should not be afraid of these digressions, but embrace them, enthusiastically. This was a lesson for life that has stayed with me ever since.

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2 comments on Richness of Understanding

  1. Thanks Arthur. I too caught the Art History bug from the triumvirate and have never regretted it.

  2. Bravo, Arthur! You are dead right. We were extremely fortunate to have had Art 1-2 and Art 3-4 with them. I’m trying to remember if Joe took at least 1-2 but don’t recall. David Steward

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