As an art teacher I constantly hear my students say “I don’t know what to draw,” or “What should I make?” The assignments they seem to enjoy the most are highly structured, e.g., constructing a color wheel, or lessons focusing on mechanical skills such as carving a linoleum block, coloring in letters, or tracing. In other words, they are tasks requiring their attention and coordination but little cognitive skill or imagination.
The majority have a hard time generating their own ideas. What usually happens is they fall back to some image they have done before. I have seen students draw the same image over and over with only the media changing. In the actual drawing of the image students rely on what they know, drawing set schema and symbols, rather than taking the time to study the world around them for more information. In the end they laugh over their efforts and most of these works unfortunately end up in the trash.
Individual inventiveness, self-expression, and creativity are qualities American society has valued and does value and reward greatly. Perhaps this is why I say to students, “Think of your own ideas, don’t copy! You have great ideas—you dream, work, play, go to school—look there for your images, not to your neighbor’s paper, or to copy a picture in a book! TRY!”
In our seminar
Writing About American Culture
we explored the relationship between the individual and society in America through a series of non-fiction readings. Our time period spanned the period from the Declaration of Independence to our present day high-tech world. In the past two-hundred years so much has changed the physical face of our country, our lifestyles, the peoples of America. What has endured is our high regard for individual freedoms, one being freedom of expression.
Learning to express yourself (with some degree of clarity) be it in writing, music, dance, or the plastic art forms is a difficult task requiring: 1) That you have something you want to express, and 2) that you have the skills to express it with. In the plastic arts three specific areas that aid this end are the development of students’:
an awareness of: a) the world around them, and b) the world of their imagination
instruction in the use of tools and materials (requiring practice for proficiency and eventual mastery)
Knowledge of and Appreciation for Art
aids in the expansion of the imagination
aids in the ability to find personal meaning
and enjoyment in art.
As an art teacher my goals are to develop these areas and abilities in my students. This unit is designed with these goals in mind. It will expose students to the creative works of individuals with backgrounds both similar to and different from their own. Its purposes are to: 1) help students realize the effect environment and cultural background have on the way these artists and they themselves view life, 2) illustrate ways in which artists draw their ideas from their environment and background, 3) introduce students to ways of looking at and finding meaning in artwork, and 4) develop students verbal, written, and art skills. An understanding of these influences will expand self-awareness (by drawing students’ attention to the things that influence them), enhance appreciation and knowledge of art, and aid in the creation of a more personal form of artistic expression.
The unit presents the lives and works of American artists from different cultural backgrounds. It is divided into three sub-units that can be taught separately or in sequence. It includes a Black artist, Jacob Lawrence; a White artist, Andrew Wyeth; and Native American art of the Plains Indians.
I have selected the work of Jacob Lawrence for three reasons. His style of painting is narrative, telling us a story in pictures. This makes his work easily accessible to younger audiences. Secondly, the inspiration for and the subject matter of his work are drawn directly from the struggle and life of Blacks in America. His work will be used as an example of how artwork can reflect the views, experiences, and cultural background out of which its creator was born. Lastly, visually his work has a vitality I believe students will respond to.
I chose the work of Andrew Wyeth to illustrate how important environment (in this instance the countryside of Pennsylvania and the coast of Maine) can be in motivating and inspiring artists. I feel students will appreciate his work’s realism and the artist’s technical skill but I am also hoping they will see the expressive qualities inherent in it.
The third sub-unit will present the art of the North American Plains Indians focusing on how the way of life of the group (nomadic hunters and gatherers) coupled with the environment in which they lived dictated how they viewed life, the images they made, and the objects they possessed.
Because a purpose of this unit is to increase students’ ability to generate their own ideas for images, each lesson will be divided into two parts. First students will look at and respond to a specific work of art. Then students will be asked to look at some aspect of their own life and draw upon their own experiences to create images. I believe students learn a lot by example. It is my hope that by exposing students to these artists’ work and to the context of their lives they will be able in turn to apply this information to their own situations. They will be asked to examine their lives, times, and concerns (drugs, violence, and the good aspects) to find issues they want to communicate.
It will be my task to help students realize that they possess an endless source of ideas that they can and should draw from. I will first help them find ways to get their ideas out verbally, and then help them translate these ideas into tangible forms beyond the level I described earlier. This requires a lot of dialogue and a lot of demonstration.
The following three sub-units will be used in art classes by students in grades five-eight. The unit on Jacob Lawrence will be used from January through February of 1988 in conjunction with Black History Month. The unit on Andrew Wyeth will be used by seventh and eighth graders during the second semester of the coming school year, and the Native American art unit will be used in April of 1988. Lessons will vary, in terms of their depth, in relation to the age and ability level of each group.
For the fifth and sixth grade students who have art once a week each unit will last for seven weeks. The sequence of lessons will run as follows:
Looking at the Works—
learning some tools to help us communicate our thoughts. Responding through the written word.
Introduction to the Historical Background—
answering questions like: Who was Jacob Lawrence? What were his life and times like? Where did he get his ideas? . . .
Introduction to visual assignment. Brainstorming ideas as a class, and then individually (issues that concern them). Sketching out their ideas on paper.
Continue work on project—
Introduce painting techniques.
Review of Unit—
Sharing of completed works.
With the seventh and eighth grades the lessons will proceed in the same order. The depth of each lesson and my expectations will be greater. Because they have art class three times a week I would hope that this unit will be completed in three weeks.
SUB-UNIT 1: Jacob Lawrence
Living in society we are all pushed, pulled, and shaped by our experiences with people, our culture, and our environment. By examining these influences we can learn a lot about ourselves, others around us, and our relationship to the world. This kind of questioning can bring out concerns, ideas, and interests which could stimulate students’ ideas.
In this unit students will learn:
1) Who Jacob Lawrence is
2) A general overview of some of the events in Black History
3) That artwork can express emotions, feelings, and tell stories
They will be able to state:
1) The major source of inspiration for Jacob Lawrence’s work
2) Two places where artists look for their ideas
They will be able to identify and/or define the following terms and people:
b) Harlem Renaissance
f) Jacob Lawrence
g) Harriet Tubman
i) space (figure/ground)
They will be able to:
1) Cluster their feelings about a particular piece of artwork
2) Write written responses—stories inspired by the artwork, and
3) Create a painting in the narrative style of Jacob Lawrence that will tell a story, in a series of pictures. These stories must relate to a personal experience of the student and contain no words.
When I introduce my students to the artwork of Jacob Lawrence I will turn off the lights, turn on the slide from his Harlem series (pieces depicting street scenes of Harlem) and ask students to tell me how does it make you feel? What is your first impression? Is it lively or dull? Does it remind you of life on Grand Ave.? . . . While this dialogue proceeds I will be writing their responses on the chalkboard. Rather than listing their answers I will cluster their responses. When I have at least fifteen reactions I will stop and review. Here I will point out to students that one picture gave us all these feelings and ideas—Why do they think this is? My point here will be that artwork communicates ideas, feelings, and it can stir our memories.
Next, I might have them describe the work. What do they see, what smells can they imagine, what would they be hearing if they found themselves in that scene? How would they feel? My purpose here is to help students feel personally related to the work. I want them to realize art doesn’t just have to be a picture on a wall; it can present a world to us. It expresses feelings and ideas if we take the time to pay attention to it.
At this point I would ask my students to pretend they were walking down that street. Who do you see, isn’t it hot outside? . . . I will pass out paper and have them write a short story about their walk asking them to include all their senses commenting on what they might hear, see, smell, touch, and taste.
After they finish I will put on one more slide, this time one from Lawrence’s
series. This series is a set of sixty paintings that tell the story of how, at the turn of the century, there was a great mass movement of Blacks leaving rural life in the South for the promise of better opportunities in the North. Once again students will cluster their responses to this piece. I will then ask them to pretend they are artist who painted this piece. What was it you wanted to tell us? What is it about? Why did you paint it? What gave you the idea—something you read about, or saw, or thought about? I will encourage them by reminding them there is no right or wrong answer: all I want to hear are their ideas.
The purpose of these exercises is to help students become comfortable with looking at and finding meaning in art. They will also help them discover where this artist found his ideas. Most importantly they will help them realize that artwork communicates feelings and ideas. It can stir our memories and tell us stories.
After I have gathered together all their stories I will read as many as time permits. We will end each lesson with a review of the ideas we have learned.
1) that a picture is worth a thousand words—speaking a different story to each of us
2) that art can express ideas, feelings, and tell us stories, and
3) we learned how to cluster our ideas
In this lesson I will:
1) review the major concepts from the previous week
2) give students a brief history of the life and times of Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 and is still alive today. He grew up in Philadelphia living with his mother, brother, and sister, he was the eldest child. When Jacob was twelve years old his family moved to Harlem, the year was 1929.
In 1987, when we think of Harlem we think of a tough place to live. Harlem brings to mind images of crime, drugs, and poverty. But in the 1920’s Harlem was quite a different place. The era of the 1920’s came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. This Renaissance was marked by the coming together of many creative Black individuals who were trying to establish their own style, sound, and culture. They wanted to contribute and enrich American life by establishing a unique Black voice that could speak to all peoples.
By the 1930’s things changed, America was in the throws of the great Depression. The Depression hit hard in Harlem. The Renaissance was over and in its stead, massive unemployment, soup kitchens, overcrowding, and evictions became the way of life. At the age of thirteen, this was the Harlem Jacob Lawrence found himself in the midst of. His mother was afraid Jacob would get into trouble on the streets of Harlem so she sent him to after school art classes. Jacob enrolled in a painting class, loved it, and has been doing artwork ever since.