Despite the black and white "CRUSH COLBY" t-shirts that crop up at Colby-Bowdoin hockey games, the two schools are not always butting heads. "Ink Tales," the new exhibit in the Focus Gallery at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, is a collaborative effort of the two schools that displays the fruits of a healthy intercollegiate relationship.

Inspiration for the exhibit began during the 2005-2006 academic year when Assistant Professor of Art History De-nin Lee began thinking about the Chinese paintings in the Bowdoin collection. Specifically, she was interested in a group of 39 Chinese paintings that philanthropist William Bingham II gave to the college in 1942.

According to Lee, the initial discovery process was exciting.

"Can you imagine just stumbling across a 10th century text? It's the earliest printed piece that we have," she said. Lee has often ventured into Bowdoin's collections storage room searching for a few specific pieces and instead found drawers of "unexpected surprises."

A year after this initial spark, Lee embarked on a year of grant writing with her colleague, Associate Professor of Art and East Asian Studies at Colby Ankeney Weitz. Lee and Weitz then returned to their respective institutions and taught collaborative seminars in the spring of 2008. In these seminars, students picked a theme derived from the colleges' collections of Chinese art, selected images, wrote labels, planned the layout for the upcoming exhibition, and made a family guide.

Collaboration was intrinsic to all aspects of this project. The Bowdoin and Colby seminars met several times throughout the semester, including a joint trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. At the MFA, Weitz and Lee pushed their students to "become more cognizant of how each exhibit is personally constructed," Lee said. "We wanted them to become aware of the subtleties of curating."

The process of deciding which pieces would go up at which institution was largely student-driven.

"We would go to Colby and have sessions with the education curator. It was from these sessions that the students decided to mix the Bowdoin and the Colby collections for the exhibit," Lee said. Bowdoin's Focus Gallery is currently home to an album of Colby's Chinese paintings and Colby is showing more than 10 of Bowdoin's pieces.

The success of "Ink Tales" also depended on the cooperation between the two institutions, according to Lee.

"It was truly a serendipitous matching of resources. For example, we have most of the paintings, but they have a curator of education. We have a new museum, but we don't have a lot of horizontal glass cases for scrolls and luckily Colby does," she said.

"It was an unprecedented collaboration between the faculty, students, and museums of these colleges," Lee added. "But we knew if we were able to do this, we would reach out to a much broader audience and have a strong impact. We saw it as a significant opportunity for our students to teach about a different culture."

For Lee, the unique educational and curatorial process is one of the defining aspects of the show.

"While, from far away, it may look like a relatively standard show, up close you can tell that the student curators really took it to heart to educate and make the pieces accessible. They were so excited about what they learned that the show is really a vehicle for teaching others," she said. "The generosity of teaching is really an element here. The students were very keen on that part."

Differences unfolded between the Colby and Bowdoin exhibits, both titled "Ink Tales," as they developed. While Bowdoin students decided to unravel the rich narrative content of the Chinese paintings through informational guides, gallery labels, and in-depth research projects, Colby students included headphones by each piece so viewers could hear students reading the text.

The shows are also physically distinct because of the differences between the two museum spaces.

"At Colby they have long scroll cases and here we have tall ceiling space. For that reason, their show is longer and more horizontally laid out than ours," Lee said. Their show has a small scale intimate feel where as, while we have moments of intimacy, we also have a public face to our exhibit. Our items are larger and more iconic on the whole.

"Ink Tales" was intended to educate both the seminar students and the broader Bowdoin and Colby communities.

"It was conceived as something that was going to be a broad public show. The impetus for that stems from my experience teaching a foreign culture. In the seminar we explored how East Asian cultures are put on display in American museums. Because, really, those pieces are standing in for the culture itself," Lee said.

This holds particular resonance for "Ink Tales," according to Lee.

"Both Bowdoin and Colby are located in an area of the country that has relatively low exposure to East Asian culture," she said. "I wanted to make sure that this art exhibit would be a vehicle, not for promoting or substantiating those stereotypes, but for a more substantial, complex, and profound exposure to Chinese culture."

"Ink Tales" is on display in the Focus Gallery at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art until May 10. It is on display at the Colby College Museum of Art until March 8.