Learning about art via smartphone

College students who are more comfortable browsing the web than stacks of books can now research the artworks on display in Santa Rosa Junior College’s Doyle Library simply by pointing their phones at them.

The new Art Talk uses smart phone technology to make fine art accessible to a new generation of what writer Marc Prensky dubbed “digital natives,” students who never knew a world without home computers and the Internet.

SRJC librarians Alicia Virtue and Loretta Esparza created the online gallery to better engage students with the library’s extensive collection of fine art, all done by current or former faculty members.

By placing their smart phones over a QR code, students are connected to a video interview with the artist explaining his or her inspiration and creative thinking behind the piece. For some, that may even include a peek into their sketchbooks. The videos are accompanied by additional information like statements from the artist, biographies and links to further resources - including books - in the library.

The collection of 80 pieces of art, strategically hung throughout the third and fourth floors and the stairwells of the 145,000-square-foot library, is also available to non-students who come to the library during regular hours. Anyone with a Smart Phone equipped with a QR (bar code) reader app can take the digital tour. The complete collection, representing 56 artists and including Art Talk enhancements for 20 of those artists, is also available online on the library page at

Stephanie Sanchez, who chairs the SRJC Art Department and is one of 20 featured artists, said the e-learning tool is a quick way for students to go deeper with their visual experience in the moment.

“We need to approach students using the media they’re familiar with,” she added. “Most students that we come across now would prefer to get any kind of information they can by Googling it or going right to the Internet. This is a way we hopefully can engage them in art and get them more excited about it.”

Virtue came up with the idea one day while watching a student trying to write a paper about two small white panels by SRJC art instructor Connie Goldman, part of a series she calls “Ripple.”

“I thought, ‘How does she now what to write?” said Virtue, noting how she herself loves to go to museums with her sister, an art historian, because she can offer such rich commentary about the art.

Goldman’s two pure white square panels on the face of it appear very simple. But now, by clicking on a QR code, students can find out that Goldman was thinking of the ripple effect on water and “the tension between stasis and change,” and that she chose to paint on fiberboard because it’s stronger and more stable than plywood panels; the square shape itself is a cross-cultural symbol for stability.

Virtue and Esparza secured a $2,000 grant from the SRJC Foundation’s Randolph Newman Cultural Enrichment Endowment, which paid for the video production. But Virtue, who is trained in coding and web design, built all the web pages with information about each artists and links to the videos stored on YouTube. Esparza did all the video editing, which took countless hours to bring each down to digestible clips of less than 3 minutes.

They worked closely with Scott Lipanovich, a library technician who also is curator of the Doyle Collection. It was Lipanovich who procured each piece, working mostly on his own time on weekends over a 2 1/2-year period. He met personally with artists or their heirs, persuading them to donate one or more pieces to the permanent collection, which includes some of the most notable Bay Area artists of the last half-century, including the late Robert Arneson, who taught at SRJC from 1958 to 1959 and Paul Beattie, an abstract realist whose roots were in San Francisco’s Beat Culture of the 1950s.

“I looked at over 1,200 pieces of art. Now we have this incredible collection and I’m quite confident there’s no other collection like it in the country, “ he said, “meaning a college that has work only of its own people and of this quality. And they’re sitting on these walls as if it’s a museum. What Alicia and Loretta did was take this work and join it with the classroom - art meets education.”

Landscape painter Marsha Connell, an adjunct instructor at SRJC since 1978 who has three pieces in the collection, said fine art that is authentic to place, both Northern California and SRJC in particular, brings a vitality to the Doyle Library.

“It’s a very different feeling than choosing some posters or things that would be more traditionally decorative,” she said. “This work has feeling and it comes from the people who have made the place the way it is.”

Art Talk, she added, takes it further, helping artists leave a legacy.

“To hear people talking about their work and to meet them while looking at their images brings it to life and makes it more memorable. I’ve become interested in the idea of legacy, “ she said, “looking around the country and the world to see what artists are doing for documentation and legacy. Otherwise stories get lost and people get lost who have a body of work.”

The Art Talk team was able to capture on film the respected painted Maury Lapp, a revered SRJC art instructor for 58 years who died in June.

The digital tour is one more step in an ongoing effort by the SRJC library staff to reinvent the library for a new generation of students who come equipped with digital devices and who use the space in very different ways than previous generations.

“It’s not so much what is inside the building as what we do in a library,” said Will Baty, Dean of Learning Resources & Educational Technology at SRJC and a private consultant in library facilities design.

For today’s students, that means more collaborative learning and study, so Baty designed into Doyle a multitude of small rooms for group work. Furniture is easily movable and most of the building is bright with natural light rather than the dark corners with solitary carrels and stacks of yore.

Last year, there were 56,000 library checkouts compared to 72,000 in the 1990s, although that figure leaps to 98,000 when you include iPads and laptaps that can be checked out for use in the library. Meanwhile, said Virtue, the library’s collection of e-books is now about 350,000.

The digitization of traditional research sources like encyclopedias and obsolescence of the formerly essential Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature have prompted discussions about re-tooling the reference collection, and giving more space to accommodate group work. Staff is also thinking about creating a lounge for students to gather and a larger, centralized collection of foreign language books for ESL students.

“We keep morphing the library,” said Esparza, “to reflect how study is changing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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