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Beauty of Art Spans Ages

February 21, 2011

Lee Sandstead, art historian, brought concepts of art to Courtland Elementary School students in Spotsylvania County

Date published: 2/16/2011
Reporter for The Free Lance-Star

There was an uproar in the Courtland Elementary School cafeteria Friday afternoon when art historian Lee Sandstead compared the Mona Lisa to a picture of Justin Bieber.

Cheers and boos echoed off the walls as third-, fourth- and fifth-graders reacted to an image of the young pop singer.

Sandstead, a professor at Averett University, planned it that way.

As teachers quieted the audience, Sandstead explained how what they saw related to da Vinci's famous painting.

When it was unveiled, "people reacted to the Mona Lisa in the same way that you guys reacted to the picture of Justin Bieber," he told the Spotsylvania County students.

Sandstead explained how in the Mona Lisa painting, the subject has an enigmatic smile, much like Justin Bieber in the photograph he showed them.

Both the mysterious woman in the 16th-century painting and Justin Bieber in the photograph face forward, which was unheard of in da Vinci's day, Sandstead said.

"Everybody turn your head either way," he told the kids. "Don't laugh. Don't smile. No emotion."

He said that's what portraiture was like in the years before da Vinci's portraits.

"No one painted with such personality," he said.

He compared the astonishment people felt toward the new techniques da Vinci used, including painting with oil and having a subject face forward in a portrait, to the astonishment Harry Potter felt when he first saw a moving painting in the book series.

"It was shocking," he said.

During his presentation, he showed the kids famous paintings in a way they could understand. He compared spatial beauty in his own photographs to a clean bedroom. And he likened the painting depicting George Washington's Delaware River crossing during the Revolutionary War to a football game.

Sandstead explained that art has given him good days, courage and the ability to really see the people in his life.

He touched on deeper topics such as personal relationships, historic events and beauty in the world, but he did it in a way elementary school students could understand.

"Every day we see beautiful things, but every day we don't notice these things," he said. "If you're walking around looking at beautiful things every day, then what happens? You have a beautiful day."

He told the story of how he left his favorite hat in the bed of his truck.

"It got rained on and got ruined," he said. "Before art, I would have been so upset."

But because of his understanding of art and its presence in his life, he saw something else.

"It's all very beautiful to me, so I had to take a picture of it," he said. "Without art, I never would have noticed this, and would have lost a hat instead of gaining a beautiful moment."

Mary Lou Cramer, the art teacher at Courtland Elementary School, invited Sandstead to speak at her school after hearing him speak at a conference.

She received an Art and Culture in Schools grant from Target to bring Sandstead to the school.

For Sandstead, speaking to elementary schoolers is a new endeavor. He said Courtland was only the third school he had visited.

"I want to do it a lot more," he said. "It's really big for me to try to relate to my audiences. I just want to talk about how the most profound art can be related to their level."

Heather Brady: 540/374-5000 ext. 5779