The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Forty-Three, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, by Marin Ekstrom and Misha Ignatenko


Washington, DC boasts a great deal of iconic landmarks: the Smithsonian, the White House, Capitol Hill, etc. But our inner hipsters remarked, “Why would you want to go visit something so mainstream? Art is where it is at.” Therefore, we decided to deviate from the norm and check out the gallery (though, to be fair, the Corcoran Gallery is not exactly “under the radar”). Although we initially decided to visit the gallery for rather frivolous reasons, our experience altered the way that we viewed the world afterwards, as detailed below.

We began on a chronological tour of the permanent exhibitions, starting with the “classical” works. This section featured pieces of early American artwork, ranging from colonial portraits, depictions of Native American life, and vivid oil paintings of everyday objects and landscapes. We then “fast-forwarded” to the mid-20th century, the era of greater experimentation and unfettered creativity: the pictures ranged from the art of shapes, abstraction, and bizarre scenes ranging from “lively” skeletons, the rise of consumerism, and blue collar American life.  These glimpses showcased the dynamic nature of American art, especially against the backdrop of rapidly shifting technological, political, environmental, and socio-cultural environments.


Besides reveling in the permanent exhibitions, we took a keen interest in the three main temporary exhibitions:  Mia Feuer’s “An Unkindness”, ““Question Bridge: Black Males”, and Alex Prager’s “Face in a Crowd.”

“An Unkindness” focused the devastating effects that pollution has on the environment. Feur, a native Canadian, used one of her home country’s most prolific symbols (a black hockey rink) and hung a tangled web of black-painted raven feathers, steel beams, uprooted trees, and other pieces of junk above it. The black color and motley display of trash symbolizes oil politics (Feuer cited the Suez Canal, Canadian tar sands, and Arctic oil drilling as specific case studies that she used for inspiration) and its catastrophic impact on the natural world. The ugliness of this centerpiece juxtaposed with the beauty of the rest of the museum, but it honed the point that careless, unregulated oil practices has and will continue to defile the world unless we take stronger measures to counter it.

“Question Bridge: Black Males” was a film series that interviewed 150 black males of various backgrounds across America and asked them how race has affected their lives. The film was set up as multiple short individual monologues combined into a dialogue. The topics included self-perception, perception of others, family matters, masculinity, education, community and more. The film gave an incredibly valuable insight on the diversity of ideas and views on what it means to be a black male in America. The dialogue revolved around the crucial questions, such as “what is your purpose in life?”, “how do we reclaim our communities?”, “at what point did young people stop respecting the elders?”, “what are you doing to make your world, your community a better place?”, “how do we break the cycle?”, “why do so many of us live in the present tense”, “what is the last word that we can remember you by?” (source: The clips allowed us to connect with our fellow human beings and reflect on some of the structural frameworks that create commonalities and differences for various groups of people.


The main showcase of the temporary exhibitions was Alex Prager’s “Face in a Crowd.”  The display featured a variety of candy-colored photographs depicting a wide mix of people crowded together (i.e. the beach, a stadium, a busy street crossing, etc.). It allowed its viewers the freedom to focus on one (or more) person and try to imagine his/her life story, how he/she interacted with the other people, etc. “Face in a Crowd” also consisted of a series of short films, which in contrast turned the viewers’ attention to the tale of one specific person.  The film that stuck out the most for us was “Despair”, in which we saw an unnamed heroine make a tearful phone call before joining the bustling crowds of people in the street, losing her identity as she became awashed in the sea of urbanites. As she returns home, the focus redirects to our heroine…only to show her enter her apartment and jump out the window. Admittedly, the piece was very quirky and unsettling, but it did show the power of looking at the individual face that all too often gets “lost in the crowd”, as there might be more going on than meets the eye.

We left the Corcoran Gallery with a deepened awareness of our surroundings. We saw the evolution of American life depicted in the medium of art, received an ugly reminder of irresponsible oil production’s consequences, gained deeper insights into the layers of race and gender, and contemplated on how to remain an individual amongst the masses. So despite the deprecating labels that we sometimes associate with the world of art, it makes its viewers think in different ways. In turn, it inspires them to try and change the conventional order for better alternatives- and that can truly be called a “masterpiece.”

For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see
For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to the North Star Project.

Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world.  We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under Marin Ekstrom, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

15 responses to “The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Forty-Three, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, by Marin Ekstrom and Misha Ignatenko

  1. Ruby P.

    As an art fan, I really liked reading about these art pieces and I agree with the statement that there is often more to something than meets the eye. I actually looked up some of the art pieces talked about in this article they are amazing and beautiful and I hope others can see their beauty! A picture often speaks a thousand words!

  2. To me, art is personal. It is no surprise that these artworks you intentionally chose to reflect upon have a common truth that holds society accountable for its irresponsibility in the natural world and human race. I am a fan of art in the 20th century, specifically pop art and surrealism; and I can’t express how excited I was to see an art gallery hit this website. The artwork or ‘masterpiece,’ known as “Face in Crowd,” intrigues me because I believe it is the perfect example of human relations and identity issues wallowed up in self-worth. I don’t know much behind the background of the artwork or the artist herself but with my subjective critique, the work has the power to resonate with an inevitable concept that it is possible to feel lonely yet not be alone at all which leaves a voiceless crowd to exist. And sadly, that too is possible.

  3. Zhiyu Yang

    Personally, I like visiting art galleries to cultivate my taste and gain artistic enjoyment. However, my artistic appreciation ability stays on the appearance. After reading this article, the author taught me how to read artistic work rather than just see it. The author provided an excellent example of how to gain deeper understanding of a painting from sociological perspectives. Currently the issues of pollution and diversity are still serious and provoking in our society. Undoubtedly, revealing them through artistic work can bring great visual impact and let people pay attention to them.

  4. Katy Goerke

    Doess the Corcoran Gallery specilize in art that is a reflection of reality? While this is a prestigious and important role that art can play to show us the world around us as it actually is in ways we would not have seen before, it seems unbalanced to not have the sort of art that releases us from reality. It is only imagining a better world that we can ever try to make our life better, for how can you take a trip if you do not know where you are going?

  5. Maddie Kust

    I’m glad that the two of you enjoyed your experience at The Corcoran Gallery of Art. I appreciate that you shared reactions to three unique pieces, each acknowledging a different issue. Of the three pieces that you highlighted, is there a particular issue (the irresponsibility of oil production, race and gender issues, identity/individuality) that you find yourself more conscious of since your experience at the gallery?

    Best wishes!

  6. Cheyenne Lemm

    I really enjoyed reading this piece. I love art and feel that it can convey messages better than speeches can at times. I really like that you looked at the three pieces you did to find their meaning. When there is an artist statement with a piece it is crucial I look at the piece, read the statement, and then look at the piece again. Thank you!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article because it described some beautiful pictures through someone else’s view points. I think one reason why many people like to go to more popular, mainstream art exhibits is that they are known. People already sort of have an idea about those exhibits and others have their own opinions and experiences at the exhibits as well. Which leads me to the why, for many people art is kinda abstract and unknown and by going to more well known areas it takes some of the “work” out of the process so they don’t have to try and understand the pieces because they are common and talked about.

  8. Bri Curtis

    I have never visited an art gallery or museum but this only makes me even more interested! I love looking at art and analyzing what the artist was thinking, even though that is very hard to do. I find it interesting when people try to dig deep into stronger meanings and see where people are coming from. It’s true that art speaks louder than words sometimes! Beautiful pieces!

  9. Johanna Jurgens

    I love it how we can ‘read’ an artwork, and how it usually affects us. I have constantly sat somewhere where i could see the street and would think about each person. How at the moment they seem so happy or sad, and I would always think what have they gone through, what makes them to keep moving on. “Face in the Crowd” just reminded me how everyone has a story.

  10. Samantha Frascone

    It’s truly interesting to me how much meaning a certain piece of art has the ability to hold. I enjoyed reading this article about your experiences. When I look at art I usually don’t think too much about it, or the meaning of it. This article made me want to go visit more art museums and look at the art with more of an open mind. You really are able to learn a lot from artwork, and art helps us to understand a lot about ourselves and everything around us as well.

  11. Maija

    Although art doesn’t play a huge role in my life, there are still certain pieces that everyone can find to relate to (one of the many great things about art). The last part of this article is something I would really enjoy to see for myself. It is easy to get “lost in the crowd”, or not notice other people and is something we should keep in mind when we are in those “crowded” places.

  12. Art is unique, and can be portrayed in several different ways. The images that you shown caught my eye, looking at art is interesting. You can either relate yourself to the art, or it could be totally opposite. I have been to the art exhibits in D.C and they actually are quite interesting and really fun to look at, so if you get the chance, then do so!

  13. Samantha Roettger

    I have been to a few art museums, but none of contemporary art. Looks like an amazing gallery and would love to visit this one in DC.

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