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DU Museum Studies Student Makes Art Accessible, Finds Strong Support Network

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Evanne Seelig

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Museum Studies MA student Celina Grey Taylor stands in the conservation area of the Clyfford Still museum with conservation team Michal Mikesell and James Squires. 

Museum Studies MA student Celina Grey Taylor (center) stands in the conservation area of the Clyfford Still museum with conservation team Michal Mikesell (left) and James Squires (right). 

From working as a professional figure skater to doing communications and development work at a nonprofit and running her own arts academy in Steamboat Springs, Celina Grey Taylor has had an unusual path to the School of Art & Art History’s museum studies master's program.

Throughout her journey, a love of the arts and making them accessible to everyone have been common threads.

“I love finding people that have the means and have passion for the arts and bringing them together with the opportunities that can use the support,” Grey Taylor said.

This love, along with an ongoing interest in history and religion and how they show up in art, helped lead Grey Taylor to the museum studies program in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, where she’s in her second and final year. Grey Taylor’s overarching goal was to learn how to make art of all kinds more accessible and available to a range of people.

One of the biggest steps Grey Taylor took toward reaching her goals stemmed from connections made by her museum studies professor, Dean Sobel, who was the founding director of Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum. In Sobel’s class, Grey Taylor grew fascinated with not only Clyfford Still’s art, but also the innovative educational opportunities the museum was providing.

Sobel introduced Grey Taylor to museum staff. At the time, the COVID situation made an internship impossible, but they stayed in contact and in summer 2021 the Clyfford Still Museum decided that they were ready to invite Grey Taylor to intern for them, at first remotely, but as restrictions opened up, she was able to do more in person.

One of Grey Taylor’s projects with the Still was inspired by a different kind of restriction: the need to protect the art by asking people not to touch.

“So many people want to touch the paintings because they are so rich with impasto, especially young children,” Grey Taylor said. Impasto is an art technique that involves thick layers of paint, creating a visible texture.

Grey Taylor worked on creating a prototype of a tactile tool that children and other museumgoers could interact with as they went through the museum. She made a fabric book with different prompts on each page that were designed to spark engagement with the artwork. As visitors explore the book and museum, they’re able to feel textures they see in the museum, from blank canvas all the way up through a swatch replicating the painting “Big Blue.”

“Finding ways to make everyone feel welcome in a museum space and gallery hasn’t always been the goal of institutions like this historically,” Grey Taylor said. “Art can be intimidating. This movement, where they are trying to make it feel welcoming to everyone, I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

The museum’s most recent exhibition, “Clyfford Still, Art, and the Young Mind,” went beyond making a new population feel welcome: It invited them to be part of the curation process.

“The exhibition has been completely curated by children,” Grey Taylor said. Partnering with preschools and childcare centers, museum staff showed paintings to children of different ages and observed their preferences. The youngest participants were infants, who showed a preference for high contrast images.

“Different parts of the galleries each have been curated by a different age group for a different reason,” Grey Taylor said. The exhibition has galleries focused on themes that mirror developmental stages: high contrast, scale, pattern the world around us, and color. Along with helping to select the artwork, the children’s thoughts about the artwork are featured in the gallery and audio commentary.

“Any time any organization, particularly in the arts, is encouraging kids in outside-of-the-box thinking, allowing them to be as outlandishly creative as possible and supporting that publicly, it is wonderful, just beautiful,” Grey Taylor said.

That invitation to encourage more open-ended experiences of internal reflection appealed to Grey Taylor. She became interested in the philosophy behind Clyfford Still’s art, as well as the friendship between Still and fellow abstract artist Mark Rothko.

"They became friends around this idea that art came from the human spirit in a way that couldn’t be taught the way we teach architecture and graphic design,” Grey Taylor said.

Grey Taylor began researching their friendship and artistic philosophies for her master’s research paper. She was able to access the museum’s archive of unpublished letters the two had exchanged over the years—a glimpse into their lives that not many get to see.

“To have the ability to work with the archivists at the museum has been amazing,” Grey Taylor said. “If Dean Sobel hadn’t been teaching at DU, I don’t know that anyone would have brought up the fact that the letters exist.”

Grey Taylor was able to supplement her research with a DU ART Research Travel Grant-funded trip. On her trip she visited important abstract expressionist sites in the U.S., including the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and the Philips Collection in Washington, D.C., and East Hampton, New York. She also visited museums in Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Paris, and several locations important to Rothko in Italy. She is grateful to the donors who fund these experiences for students like her.

“It was something I never imagined would be possible,” Grey Taylor said. “So many students are intimidated by applying for funding or may feel like they’re not good enough. I would love to encourage students to apply for those grants; it’s how things get done.”

Grey Taylor was impressed by the range of experiences that she was able to have despite COVID, and with the strong connections she formed with her cohort of master’s students.

“It’s meant a lot to have people willing to stand by you and encourage you and not get competitive," Grey Taylor said. “Despite challenges, I feel like I’ve received a lot of love and support from faculty, staff and students.”