It was a rainy Thursday afternoon Nov. 21 when 17-year-old Emily Zauzmer toured the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Philadelphia-area teen wore an emerald green dress, giggled with her mother as they wandered around, and smiled with all of the wonder you might expect from a young woman taking in one of Detroit’s most valued treasures for the first time.
The trip to Detroit from Philly was a special treat for Zauzmer, who has been an avid art fan since she was in kindergarten. Back then, her teacher had shown the class a photo Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” She’ll tell you that, from that moment, she “was hooked.”
“I begged my parents to take me to the Museum of Modern Art (in New York City), and they graciously did,” said Zauzmer.
Her fascination with art, and particularly art history, grew over the years. In 2011, she penned a book called “Once Upon a Masterpiece: An Art History Adventure,” which tells the tale of an aspiring ballerina who learns, with some inspiration from a few classic pieces of artwork, that she should always follow her dreams, despite naysayers.
The book is geared toward children but has notes for parents and teachers to help guide young readers through the richly educational story. There are even citations for each artwork pictured in the book, including where the work is currently on display and a fun tidbit to go along with each piece. For instance, that nighttime scene depicted in “Starry Night” was painted in van Gogh’s room in an asylum, as he looked out a window during the daytime.
“I self-published the book with a grant,” explained Zauzmer. “The schools (in Philadelphia) were in the midst of a financial crisis, and it was really affecting the school districts. Of course, the arts are always the first thing on the chopping block, so I really wanted to help the elementary schools, and I wanted to use my book to help, if I could.”
With the grant money left over after she published “Once Upon a Masterpiece,” Zauzmer had more books printed and distributed them to schools in her area to introduce students, perhaps hurting for art instruction, to the classic works she had fallen in love with so long ago.
Earlier this summer, she picked up a copy of the New York Times and read about Detroit’s own financial woes, and again, she wanted to help. Knowing the arts might be in danger as city officials struggled to figure out a potential bankruptcy filing, Zauzmer reached out to the DIA and offered to donate copies of her book.
Needless to say, the offer was gladly accepted.
“She sent me an email saying she was wondering if she could help, and I said of course,” said Kathryn Dimond, director of community relations for the DIA.
Thomas Guastello, chairman of the Oakland County Art Authority, was so impressed by Zauzmer’s good deed that he offered to bring her to the city to see the DIA for herself.
Upon her arrival, the teen was treated a bit like a celebrity, with museum staff and local reporters surrounding her as she walked from gallery to gallery. She recognized many of the famed pieces before docents could even point them out, especially van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin.”
“That was a treat,” Zauzmer said of the piece.
“It just goes to show that the DIA has so many masterpieces, and it really is a world-class museum,” said Guastello.
Zauzmer was even granted a special tour of the institute’s conservation areas, where expert art staff carefully analyzes historic pieces of art with X-rays and infrared machines, and dates pieces based on characteristics like the chemical composition of the paint used.
During the visit, Zauzmer spoke about her future ambitions. She’s getting ready to apply to colleges — she’s got her eye on Princeton — and she hopes she can translate her love of art history into a career. She hopes to major in art history and minor in creative writing, so one day she’ll be able to pen adventure novels based on the origins of famous works. With one book down, and an SAT score of 1600, she’s likely well on her way to literary success.
The trip was brief — Zauzmer and her mother were on a plane pack home by the evening. But it was a well-deserved adventure for a teenager who wanted to share her love of art with children from a city she had never before visited.
“I think she did this for no other reason than for her love of art,” said Dimond, who said the teen had no intention of making a political statement on the DIA and the potential of its collection being sold to satisfy Detroit’s bankruptcy debts.
“She felt a personal connection with (the institute) and wanted to reach out to help other kids.”
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