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Guest Writer: Taking the time to discover the storytelling power of visual literacy

Posted on March 11, 2019 at 4:37 PM by Jill O'Brien

I never thought about visual literacy as a critical part of understanding our environment. I'm not even sure I had a grip on what visual literacy was until I joined an English 150 class on a tour of the Biorenewables Complex last Wednesday. The tour was given by University Museums Interpretation Specialist David Faux.


During the tour, I learned that visual literacy is made up of three parts: describing, interpreting, and evaluating. We were encouraged to first describe what we saw, whether that be shapes, colors, faces, or anything that caught our eye in a piece. By describing what we saw first and then jumping into interpretation, we could then decide if the artists succeeded in creating something that resonated with students. 


The main work of art on the tour was Ralph Hemrick's Floating World, which hangs in the atrium of the Biorenewables Complex. Upon first inspection, the group noted that it was full of green, silver, agricultural imagery, and lines that we learned were depictions of waterways throughout Iowa. When we walked around to the other side of the artwork, we noticed that the vague images we first saw were now more specific and told a story of agricultural advancement in our state. 


As we walked through the atrium, we stopped to take a look at the floor of the building. Every few feet or so, there was a circle with a different image within it, from the solar system, to the United States, to the state of Iowa and Iowa State's campus, all the way down to a carbon atom in the last circle. All of these circles were part of "Floating World," and perhaps show the interconnectedness of our world, right down to a single atom. 


If I were just walking through the Biorenewables Complex, I probably would never have stopped to actually understand the art I was looking at - that is, if I even looked up to see it. By first describing everything I saw, I later understood that all these pieces came together to tell a story that is special to Iowa State and Iowa overall. As someone who often jumps to the analysis and understanding phase, I challenged myself to walk through every part of the visual literacy process, and develop a deeper understanding of the art, the environment and the stories around me. 



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