Connecting with Art: Hollie Ecker

George Bellows, The Teamster, 1916,
George Bellows, The Teamster, 1916, oil on canvas, Bequest of Mrs. Elizabeth B. Noyce, 1997.3.1

The museum recently asked museum educator Hollie Ecker of Arts & Minds which artworks in the Farnsworth’s collection she values most. A shortened version of this interview appeared in the fall 2020 Farnsworth magazine. 

My name is Hollie Ecker and I am a teaching artist/associate educator with Arts & Minds in New York City, a not-for-profit organization committed to improving quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through engagement with art. We partner with museums to provide meaningful art-centered activities that create positive emotional and cognitive experiences, enhance verbal and non-verbal communication, reduce isolation and build community.
Back in February 2020, I had the great pleasure of leading a two-day training for the education staff and docents of the Farnsworth Art Museum that focused on best practices in museum dialogue for individuals living with dementia and their care partners. For a guided inquiry that I led with the group, I chose The Teamster, a painting made in 1916 by George Bellows. Having taught at the Whitney Museum of American Art for years, I was very familiar with his great Dempsy and Firpo (1924), which depicts a powerful moment in an American boxing match through strong diagonals and contrasting colors. 

George Bellows
Dempsey and Firpo

Initially, I was drawn to The Teamster for some of the same formal reasons; the strong sweeping diagonal of the gigantic ship as it cuts the horizon pulled me back to a saturated purple sky—a sky that vibrates next to yellows that bounce us between figure, land, and monumental vessel. 

It was the rich open-ended discussion we had, however, that took me deeper into the layers of meaning hidden in this painting. Many in our group were local to Maine, and this artwork unleashed much history about coastal towns, ship-building, and industry. Someone said the ship resembled the skeleton of a beached whale, and I found myself contemplating the power of nature and scale of the sea. Another person commented on the smoke coming from the chimney in the background, and the effect of physical labor after a hard day’s work suddenly ran through my body as the smell of home and dinner filled my imagination. We noticed the bright sun on the man’s face and the long shadows behind him, and felt workers’ achievement paired with the passing of time. Once again, I was pulled into the ominous purple sky and deep blue sea beneath it, and exited the painting having understood through Bellows’s striking use of scale and his juxtaposition of man, animal, vessel, and nature that nature prevails. 

“When I paint the great beginning of a ship, I feel the reverence the ship-builder has for his handiwork … I am filled with awe, and I am trying to paint as well as he builds, to paint my emotion about him. 

When I paint the colossal frame of the skeleton of his ship I want to put his wonder and his power into my canvas.” 

—George Bellows, 1917

Hollie Ecker is a teaching artist and museum educator for visitors of all ages and abilities at major museums in New York City. In addition to her work with Arts & Minds as a teaching artist and associate educator, she works at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, she worked as an educator at the Museum of Modern Art for more than 10 years. As a Fulbright Scholarship recipient, Hollie spent time in Rome, developing and implementing school/museum partnerships for deaf students with the Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Massimo. Her teaching and consulting focus on museum visitors with disabilities, especially adults with dementia and deaf children. Hollie is a ceramic artist and when she is not making or teaching art, loves to dance salsa in her free time.

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