Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2012 (March 20, 2012)

Making Meaning of Image and Text


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March 20, 2012

Across a marquee, Jo Ortel read the message: “Gov. Scott Walker Starring in Total Recall.”

She also noticed a man wearing a sandwich board depicting Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, with the face in the shape of the state of Wisconsin.

Those were just a couple of the eye-catching and thought-provoking signs Ortel, who holds the Nystrom Chair in Art History, observed during the Madison, Wis., labor protests in February of 2011.

“People were really noticing and commenting on them,” Ortel says of the signs. She was especially intrigued by those with images and text. “Those became doubly powerful.” 

Wisconsin The ScreamThe signs inspired her to create a new course she taught in the fall called “Writing in the Visual Arts: Image and Text” that aimed to explore how meaning can be manipulated through images and words.

How does an image on its own suggest an interpretation? And how does that meaning change when words are placed next to it?

To tackle these questions, students studied topics such as illuminated medieval manuscripts, political caricatures, typography, and advertising.

As part of the advertising section of the class, Ortel asked students to share an ad in class that has been particularly meaningful to them. Music, fonts, an unexpected juxtaposition, or a company’s message were some of the ways students said the advertisements were memorable to them.

For Edgar Covarrubias’12, a Lucky Strike cigarette ad was memorable, with its symbolism from another era. He stumbled across the black-and-white, ’60s-style advertisement in a ’90s-era Rolling Stone magazine he bought from a library discard pile, and he immediately became obsessed with it.

“The ad got me to switch my brand to Lucky Strike,” Covarrubias says. “I not only liked the taste, but also what the brand represented to me—a different time in history, a time I wished I could grow up in, when it wasn’t uncommon to see someone my age wearing a shirt, tie, and hat on a normal day.”

While Ortel’s teaching focused on specific topics, she also gave her students—who are from all majors and class years—the freedom to design two out of six assignments around their personal interests (related, of course, to text and image). If a project seemed ambitious, she let them do one large project in place of the two smaller assignments.

“Throughout the course, I’ve tried to respond to what the students want and what they themselves feel they are lacking,” Ortel said. “I’m working hard to make the segments relevant to them while also seeing the world from their eyes.”

Mira Treatman’12, for one, says she enjoyed the self-direction.

“The freedom to design two out of six assignments was amazing, and that’s why I came to Beloit. I knew I could get that kind of freedom,” she says.

One of the theatre arts major’s self-designed assignments centered on an on-campus show she curated and marketed. She also danced in the show while simultaneously screening a five-minute film she made.

Treatman used what she learned in class about typography to create promotional materials such as posters and advertisements. She also incorporated text into her film and experimented with different font styles to convey the film’s message.

“Even though it’s an art history class, all of my projects have been related to dance and theatre, and that’s been fine with Jo,” Treatman says. “She’s welcomed my outside perspective.”

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