On December 21st, the day of the New Mexico Museum of Art’s Annual Holiday Open House, featuring the Baumann Marionettes, Ellen Zieselman, who is retiring, stood on the museum’s steps one last time, encouraging everyone who passed by to come on in. “Hey, it’s free,” said she.
In a world where paintings and sculptures are routinely sold at auction by Sotheby’s or Christie’s for millions of dollars, a free afternoon spent at a state museum, where families can view art, see a puppet show, and make their own stick puppets is more than a bargain; it’s a treasure, a living legacy to be passed from one generation to the next.
Santa Fe is a city blessed with incomparable museums. What stands out about our museum, and the New Mexico Museum of Art is the people’s museum, are the institution’s open door traditions. Those democratic principles were fired into the first brick laid when the museum was built nearly one hundred years ago. The doors have remained open ever since: to artists, art lovers, tourists and to young people eager to learn.
During her career as Curator of Education, Ellen has worked tirelessly to train docents and introduce young people to art, which she defines as: “an expression of individual creativity.” It’s not been all sweat and heavy lifting, though. Ellen has a tremendous sense of humor and clearly enjoys what she’s doing.
Since she announced her coming retirement, there have been toasts, testimonials and tears among docents, staff and colleagues. Museum Director Mary Kershaw acknowledges that filling Ellen’s shoes will be a tough task. After all, Ellen owns eleven pairs of Converse Sneakers, her favorite footwear. Who but a centipede could fill that many shoes? On the other hand, that many shoes leave scores of footprints. Like petroglyphs, footprints can leave lasting impressions.
Just take a look at the kids Ellen has introduced to art over the past quarter century. She teaches young viewers to look inside themselves as they view a painting. She encourages them to freely express themselves as she asks: “What do you see?”
That question is a natural “gotcha,” creating a healthy bond while boosting self-esteem according to Kershaw. “Ellen empowers the students to look at art from where they are and that is one of the most powerful connections you can build. Ellen does that really, really well.”
Ellen hasn’t sat in her office, a box like space Pandora would covet, or remained in the temple. Over the years, she has taken her show on the road, visiting schools throughout the area.
“The work that we do in the schools where Ellen goes out and actually teaches art, art history and looking at pictures, is really inspiring for children,” Kershaw said. “Art should be inspiring and art should be for everyone.”
That’s exactly what Ellen does: she inspires, according to Lisa Nordstrum, a history teacher at Santa Fe Prep, where Ellen has worked with 7th and 10th grade students for the past two years.
The minute she walks into the classroom, the students realize that this visitor will not force them to sit through a snoring, boring lecture on art history, interesting only when the power point presentation fails.
“You notice Ellen the minute she comes in a room,” Nordstrum said. “The first thing I look at is her feet, her sneakers. What Converse color is she wearing today? That’s her signature. Those shoes represent who Ellen is. She’s vivacious and engaging with a bright personality.”
Ellen’s also really fun and really cool, according to three of Nordstrum’s 7th grade history students. Sydney Manningham, Sylvia Carter-Smith and Emma Lawrence are all highly intelligent and poised young ladies who know exactly what they’re looking for in a teacher. After all, they’ve been observing teachers all of their lives. Ellen gets their stamp of approval.
“She talks in a way that we can understand. She makes art interesting and fun,” Sydney said. “Art is a visual, but you can have your own thoughts and opinions about it.”
Sylvia, who has also studied with Ellen in Hebrew School at Temple Beth Shalom, where Ellen is director of youth programs, agrees with her classmate. “Ellen has this presence. She’s real strong; she has this competence that makes you pay attention. She relates to children.”
Emma believes Ellen’s approach to teaching is what makes her cool. “Ellen brought a whole new idea about how we think about art. She brought in new ideas in a really fun way. I think that’s really special about her. Ellen’s a really great teacher.”
Ellen describes her teaching technique as problem solving. Because of her keen intelligence, she finds ways to support the curriculum and, better yet, expand it, Nordstrum says. “I’ve been teaching my students about primary sources this year. Ellen showed up with archival photographs and cameras. After we looked at the photographs, the kids went out with the cameras and created their own primary, in the moment, source.”
“Oh, that was so cool. Really cool,” Sydney, Sylvia and Emma said, speaking at the same time, while nodding in approval.
Ellen’s longstanding passion for art history, teaching and interacting with people, especially kids, is contagious. Nordstrum describes Ellen’s classroom presence as a one of kind experience. “Ellen is the first speaker who has come into my classroom, and the next day the kids have asked: ‘When is Ellen coming back?’ It isn’t: Is Ellen coming back. It’s WHEN is Ellen coming back,” Nordstrum said. “I think that speaks volumes right there.”
When asked what she considers her greatest achievements in her 25 years at the museum, Ellen first listed the book she wrote, The Hand-Carved Marionettes of Gustave Baumann, as a significant achievement. The puppets - Warts, Freckles and Miguelito - would surely agree.
But there’s another achievement in which Ellen takes pride. “Overall, I’d say what I find most gratifying is when I go to the supermarket or go into a coffee shop and there is a kid in his late teens or early twenties who says: ‘Oh, I remember you from the museum.’ That happens to me quite often. I would say I’m really very proud of the impact I feel I and the docents and this institution have made on the people of Santa Fe and New Mexico.”
Ellen Zieselman may have moved on but her rich legacy will remain in the museum’s many galleries. Ellen’s kids will return, retracing her footprints, all the while keeping the museum’s foundation solid and strong for the next hundred years. Their kids, no doubt, will follow.
Because art not only adds beauty to our lives as Ellen points out, art can teach us to take another look, a closer look, at someone else’s vision and point of view. That can only expand and enrich our lives in this crowded yet beautiful world.