Family Guide: Storied Strings

Family Guide: Storied Strings

This guide offers families some helpful tips for visiting the Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art exhibition.

American Art
Activity Type:
Special Exhibition

Family Guide: Storied Strings


The Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art exhibition shows guitars in American painting, sculpture, and works on paper.  Guitars can help artists and the people that play them tell stories about American life.

Guitars are everywhere and do much more than simply make music. We might even think of a guitar like a microphone that gets passed around – to different peoples and places– allowing everyone the opportunity to speak and be heard 

When you go through the exhibition look closely at the suggested works of art and keep these three questions in mind:

What stories and ideas might be present?  

Who might be telling them (artist, human subject, both)?  

How is the guitar helping to tell the story? 

If you follow the activities in this guide, expect to spend at least 45 minutes in the exhibition. The order of this guide follows the sequence of the exhibition and each section has the same title as the large information panel in the associated gallery.


Tips for Visiting

Explore the art. When you visit the exhibition, take time to look carefully at a few works of art rather than walking quickly through each room.

Look together. Explore art works in the galleries as a group and discuss what you see, think, and wonder.

Try an activity. Try some of the activities that follow to enjoy a more meaningful experience of the works of art.  Activity prompt cards are also available in the Start Orientation Space in the WestRock Art Education Center.

Listen closely. Take a moment to listen as well as look! You’ll hear some different styles of guitar music throughout the exhibition.

Additional activities are also available on the VMFA Learn site.


Fast Facts

You will see both artworks and actual guitars! This is an art exhibition and contains over 125 works of art. But it also features 35 guitars related to the artworks.  

Throughout the exhibition you’ll have a chance to watch videos of guitarists and listen to the many kinds of stories they tell with their music. There is even a working recording studio you may see in action! 

The order of this guide follows the order of the exhibition and each section has the same title as the large information panel in the associated gallery.

Guitars, Paintings and European Prototypes

Julian Alden Weir, American, 1852–1919, Idle Hours, 1888, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of several gentlemen, 1888 (88.7)

The artworks in this first gallery remind viewers of the guitar’s European roots and introduce the instrument in the early United States. The families, friends, and individuals seen in these artworks lived long ago, but they enjoyed playing and listening the guitar just as you might today.

In this gallery, as you look at the instruments and their players, think about how guitars appear in America today. How do these images compare?

What if you could talk with the people in these artworks? What would you share about how you, your family, and friends listen to or play guitars?


Possible Activity to Try: Beyond the Frame

Using Julien Alden Weir’s Idle  Hours, or another work of your choosing, imagine what the scene beyond the borders of the canvas looks like.  

Use clues from the artwork to imagine the world beyond the frame.  

What other objects join the guitar in the artwork?  Do you see furniture, clothing, decorative objects, books? 

Think about the placement of the guitar in relation to these other items. 


Otto Hagel (American, born Germany, 1909-1973), Odetta, 1958, Gelatin silver print, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson 98.117.66

The way people play the guitar in a work of art can seem really familiar to actions we make every day. Look at how the figure of Odetta in this photograph by Otto Hagel   holds the guitar. How would you describe the way Davis is holding the instrument?

  • Touching
  • Grasping
  • Embracing
  • Cradling
  • Hugging

How does holding an instrument remind you of ways you might interact with people you know? 

Possible Activity to try: Strike a Pose

Artists have reasons for posing people in their artworks. Sometimes just by mimicking the poses, you can understand more about the art even before getting any additional information.

Using Miles Davis, or another figural work of art (a work of art that has a person in it) of your choosing, do the following:

Without looking at the label, study the gestures and body language of the figure you see and the way the guitar is held. Carefully move your body and adjust your facial expression to match that of the figure. What does doing this tell you about what the person may be thinking or feeling?

Look at how the guitar is held or handled by the figures(s) in the artwork. How might you characterize each figure’s interaction with the guitar? 

In what ways does the way the figure holds the  instrument remind you of human-to-human physical interaction? 

  • Hugging
  • Dancing
  • Caressing

Now look at the label (if available), and compare your ideas to what is there.

What makes sense? What is surprising?

What ideas of your own would you add if you could?

Picturing Performance

Charles White, American, 1918–1979, Guitarist, ca. 1959, charcoal and gouache on illustration board. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Gift of the Faberge Society of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts Fund for American Art © The Charles White Archives, 2021.10

Making an image that depicts music can be challenging for artists.  The works on display in this section depict the attempt to show both the sights and sounds of guitar performance. Consider some of the different ways performance is pictured/captured in these images: 

  • Does it include a guitar that is actively being plucked or strummed?
  • Is an audience necessary to illustrate active listening to a performance?
  • Is the musician singing along with the music being made by the guitar?


Possible Activity to Try: Before and After

Sometimes artists create works of art that tell a story.  Often, they only show us part of the story, leaving the rest up to us and our imaginations.  

Using Charles White’s Guitarist or another work of your choosing,  try the following: 

Imagine that what you see is a frame from a moving image.  Look for clues about what came before or just after the moment depicted.  What role does the guitar play in the scenario you’ve imagined?

How might you describe the mood of the scene depicted?  Can you imagine a soundtrack that could play along and emphasize the mood? Imagine a soundtrack or song  that could play along and help emphasize the mood. What songs would you choose for your soundtrack?

Aestheticizing the Motif

Suzy Frelinghuysen (American, 1912-1988), The Ring, 1943, oil and collage on Masonite. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art. © Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, Lenox, Massachusetts. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

As you have seen in this exhibition, artists like to include the guitar in art – whether it is to show off the talent of the person in the picture or their own skill as an artist. 

Many of the artworks in this gallery celebrate the shape and form of the guitar itself. It can be both a musical AND a visual instrument that allows us to consider balance (how different elements relate to each other) and rhythm (how elements are spaced and organized in the composition).

Take a close look at Susie Frelinghuysen’s Composition: The Ring and ask yourself these questions: 

  • What kinds of shapes, lines, and colors do you see? 
  • How many guitars can you find?
  • How are they arranged?
  • Imagine you could draw a line down the center of the image. Does each side seem balanced to you? Why or why not? 
  • Do you see any patterns? Like repeating or alternating shapes or colors?


Possible Activity to try: Rename it!

Using Susie Frelinghuysen’s Composition: The Ring or another work of your choice, follow these steps:

Now find the title of the work. Imagine you had the power to give it a new title. What would it be? Why?

Now take a closer look at the artwork. Can you rename it one more time?

After your visit to the exhibition…

Take a break. Sit in the museum’s sculpture garden or café to share a snack and think about the art you have seen today. Take time to reflect on what you noticed, felt, or thought and share your reflections with someone you came with or write down your own thoughts.

Search for more guitars and other instruments in the permanent galleries.

Visit the Interactive Gallery and explore the exhibit A Closer Look.

Explore the rest of VMFA’s galleries using some of the activities you tried!

Keep listening to songs from Storied Strings! Access a curated collection of songs related to the exhibition on this Spotify playlist.