Emily Lanctot, director and curator of the DeVos Art Museum at Northern Michigan University, launched a personal project called the Superior Observation Club, which is open to all. The club encourages participants to observe things in nature, record observations in their chosen media—written or visual—and reflect on things they value.
“Art enriches every area of your life,” Lanctot said. “It's a way of enhancing memory, healing, connecting to others, creating empathy and understanding our environment. Understanding how we translate nature through our recordings and sharing that experience is important. Listening to the water, being in nature and watching sunlight on autumn leaves are things that are good for our well-being. It allows us space and time to distance from the things always at the top of our minds at school or work.”
Lanctot said her interest in observing and reflection started after experiences with doctors who didn't closely monitor her health and wellness. It took another step forward after a student commented on an hour-long art museum tour on observation, which poses questions about how to slow down and be present in the moment. The student said the practice could be applied to life in general.
“We miss a lot of things,” Lanctot said. “How can we build observation-based practices into our everyday routines, and how can I build them into my work at the museum? How can I encourage people to be better at absorbing, or at least understand the obstacles to absorbing? We want to solve problems, but once the problem is solved, we don't ask any more questions or we stop looking. I think spending more time looking at something allows us to get to better questions, and it allows us to know the world better. If this is that transformative for one person, it could probably be transformative for others.”
Currently, attendees in the Superior Observation Club range from 7-year-olds to people in their 60s or 70s. Members don't need to attend meetings regularly and can drop in whenever possible.
“I joined the observation club out of curiosity,” said Amber Dohrenwend, a local cardboard sculpture artist. “After going to my first meeting, I really enjoyed just taking time and devoting it to watching one thing very closely and drawing and writing about it. I like coming together with other people to appreciate beauty. I also really like the fact that I'm taking time to do something I really enjoy while also connecting with nature and other people. Meeting up in a variety of different interesting and beautiful spots in Marquette, it feels like a scavenger hunt, and when I look closely during observation, I'm always surprised in some way again.”
The club's location is in nature, and may relocate the site as seasons change. Paper, writing implements, watercolor paint and brushes are provided. Members can use the offered supplies or bring their own. How members record observations, with image, form or text, is up to them. Lanctot provides weekly prompts for participants interested in directions, but they aren't required to use them.
“It's a very small prompt in order to give folks something to grab onto,” she said. “It feels like there's so much information in this space, so where can they find a place to dig? I recently gave a prompt to think about how to define space. What are the spaces between and how could that be interpreted as transitions between things? It's the sky between leaves, or it could be interpreted however. Other times, I might say pay attention to how the lines underlay and become something right in front of us.”
Meetings are once a week, and times change depending on the weather and daylight. Club gatherings last no longer than 90 minutes and include introductions, a 45-minute observation period and then reflection or sharing. The club meets in Marquette, and the location is announced to people who sign up. Lanctot is reaching out to local spaces to observe and record to dry media, like greenhouses or flower shops, when colder months approach.
Interested individuals can sign up here.