Art History Master's Student Teaches Kids at the Legion of Honor

Through her internship, Maria Matthies helps Bay Area students explore art through fun activities


Maria Matthies at the Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Photo by Celeste Sunderland.

Working in a museum has been Maria Matthies’ “forever dream” since she was eight years old. A school activity in third grade involving the Mona Lisa and a Piet Mondrian piece sparked an interest in art that has grown over the years, recently leading her to an internship at the Legion of Honor.


Maria Matthies, a master’s student in the School of Art History at Academy of Art University. Photo by Celeste Sunderland.

A master’s student in art history at Academy of Art University, Matthies heads to the stunning beaux arts building once a week to teach sixth graders about art through an award-winning program called “Get Smart With Art: Past and Present.” Now in its fourth year, the program invites Bay Area students to go deeper into art by leading them through activities where they form their own gallery exhibits, investigate ancient objects and select a detail from an artwork to draw themselves.

“I love it,” said Matthies. “It’s really fun and it’s great to work with all the different kids. When I was looking for an internship I knew I wanted to be doing something in museum studies, and museum education is a great entry point for my professional career. Also, it’s so important that kids have this opportunity, since a lot of kids don’t have art in their schools.”

Matthies also works with children at Drawn2Art, an art studio in Scotts Valley, but although much of her work is centered around education right now, it’s not necessarily what she wants to focus on in the future. She’s planning to write her master’s thesis on Northern Renaissance art, specifically focusing on the work of Lucas Cranach.


“I was really interested in the Italian Renaissance art as an undergraduate [at the University of California at Santa Cruz],” she said. “But after spending time in Germany, and being exposed to so much German art, I began to shift my focus.”

After graduating from UCSC in 2009, Matthies and her husband set off for Germany so she could learn the language in preparation for a master’s degree in art history. “The museum in Stuttgart was beautiful,” she recalled. “I went there all the time. It really cultivated my appreciation of German art.”

Matthies has been drawn to museums ever since that third grade spark of inspiration, and seeks them out wherever she goes. During trips to visit her grandmother in Colorado, she always includes a visit to the Denver Fine Arts Museum. Now, Matthies gets to go to work at one of the most celebrated museums in America. She sees it as an opportunity to gain museum experience and to make sure it’s really the direction she’d like to head in.

“She’s one of our best art history majors,” said Academy of Art University Director of Art History Gabriela Sotomayor, “and I really am proud that she’s using her skills and transforming them into a wonderful opportunity not just for herself but also for the museum visitors to learn about art. It’s a beautiful example of what you can do with an art history degree.”

On Wednesday, February 18, surrounded by Victorian paintings, Matthies instructed a group of sixth graders on drawing techniques. Animatedly, she discussed shading, smudging and texturing. Then she passed out paper and pencils and instructed the students to choose a detail from one of the paintings in the gallery, and then draw it. Girls in navy blue sailor dresses and boys in hoodie sweatshirts set up their stools in front of paintings like John Martin’s “The Assuaging of the Waters” and Konstantin Makovsky’s “The Russian Bride.”

“She possesses all the qualities we look for in an intern,” said Emily Jennings, Manager of School and Teacher Programs at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “She has a clear skill set about how to make activities developmentally appropriate for students. And we’re able to give her a great understanding about museum work. So it’s a great exchange.”