Through this unit, young students in the sixth grade at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet, will create art works informed by the blues. Along the way they will discover how artists working in a variety of art disciplines—visual art, music and writing—have done the same. They will see parallel roads—artists, whose work serve as complements of each other; and crossroads—artists whose works intersect. Students will be able to understand, interpret, and bring to the road their own contributions. At the end of the journey, students will have sampled from the blues experience both as observers and as creators. The blues will have come to life as both an aesthetic encounter as well as a lesson for living.
The unit is structured as a collection of journeys in which the blues impulse is examined in music, visual art, poetry and prose. The journeys consider a range of human movement—actual and metaphorical, voluntary and involuntary, long distance and short distance, outward and inward, historical and personal. People move from place to place as time and history evolve. A journey can be physical, spiritual and/or emotional. People move from a place or state of misery and pain, seeking something better. They are moved by force or circumstance. Sometimes the destination which may have held so much promise, is no better than the place of embarkation. The destination presents new problems, and some of the old problems. Blues relates and describes that state of being, that journey. Blues is a transformation—for survival, relief, joy, hope and understanding. Blues, as a transformative experience is useful and applicable to all people. Through this unit, the blues are seen in historical context, in an art context and are made accessible and relevant to young people.
Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio, “Blood on the Fields”, the art works of Tom Feelings in
The Middle Passage
, Romare Beardan, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Bill Traylor, and selected written works of Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Langston Hughes and Albert Murray serve as the cornerstones of this unit. A varied selection of studio art projects synthesizes the artistic expression of artists and students.
The emphasis throughout this unit is on visual art. At each lesson juncture, students look at collage, paintings sand drawings. The art work is punctuated by prose, poetry or music. Artists were selected for the unit based on one or more of three criteria: (a) There is documentation which demonstrates the artist was influenced by blues. (b) The art work’s content is expressly blues or jazz. (c) The art work serves as a complement to a written or musical work to be used in the unit. Visual artists such as Feelings and Bearden were selected because they wrote about the influence of blues on their art as well as used themes focused on in the unit. Artists such as Pippin and Johnson were chosen because the content in their art is relevant to the unit. Blues artists, jazz musicians and singers populate much of Bearden’s work for example “Blues at Night” (1981), “Blues at the Crossroads” (1985) and “Blues Singer From the Delta” (1987). Pippin’s “Harmonizing” (1944) shows four men singing gospel or jazz a cappella in a call and response manner. Pippin’s “Domino Players” (1943) made an apt comparison to the use of gray in Brook’s
. Johnson painted musicians, “Street Musicians” (1940) and “String Band” (1940) as well as couples dancing “Jitterbugs” (I-V) (1940-2). Johnson’s Honeymoon Series (1940-1) and Breakdown Series (1940-41) serve as complements of
Thomas and Beulah
by Dove. Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-1) is important to the theme of the unit because it so richly depicts movement from a place of hardship to a place of hopeful prosperity. Traylor’s art and life have an unmistakable blues quality. The blues informs Marsalis work, “Blood on the Fields,” which is a journey story of freedom. Murray’s novel,
Train Whistle Guitar
defines the blues as well as offers a literary palette of the color blue. The blues poetry of Langston Hughes and his writing on rhythm and blues is indispensable. The title character in Brook’s
is the quintessential blues character who makes do, is flexible and colors her otherwise drab existence as a means of survival. One of the Thomas poems in Dove’s
Thomas and Beulah
is beautifully manifested in the paintings of William H. Johnson.
The songs, stories and images created by this extraordinary collection of artists come together to instruct, enlighten, delight and inspire.
The unit revolves around a common theme: journeys. Listening to music, (blues in “Blood on the Fields”), viewing art in a variety of styles by a number of artists and reading poetry and other writings, children first begin to see how the arts tell the same story in different and similar ways. They see the art disciplines merge and boundaries blur. A painting can be a visual form of the blues such as in the work of Pippin . A Bearden collage can be seen as visual jazz created like an improvisational piece of music. Montage such as the work of Feelings is a kind of visual poem. The art of Johnson brings the poetry of Dove to visual form. Hughes and Bearden sing a homesick blues together in their art forms. Brooks’s
is “painted music.” (Brooks 1) Marsalis and Feelings navigate the same ocean of pain.
One goal of the artist/musician/writer is to present for the viewer or audience a more acute understanding of the human experience. Of the many nuances of human experiences, tragedy is addressed in the blues. Art of the blues is a positive means for both the producer and viewer/audience to explore, confront difficulties, to express feelings and develop personal understanding,. It is a way to gain insight and is a means to lift the spirit. All people throughout the age spectrum, including children can experience and produce art in this manner. Presenting children, in a sensitively thoughtful, developmentally appropriate way, with the opportunity to see and experience human pain through uplifting art forms provides the basis for a lifetime lesson. Today, children have a range of concerns from what might be thought of as insignificant to overwhelmingly devastating. Through this unit, they have an opportunity to examine their own problems and that of their peers. Children will experience expressing personal feelings about these issues and locate the joy, humor and positive elements of a difficult and trying situation through visual art.
The studio projects which flow from the juxtaposition of the arts and blues focus on both the process and product; the becoming being as important as the end result. Process is important for it is the blues aesthetic which informs improvisational spirit of creating—working with what you have, making due, creating something out of nothing and being flexible. The pliant nature and uninhibited spirit of ten, eleven and twelve year old children is an essential ingredient. Children of this age are willing and eager to explore unknown territory without a map and without fear. They simply need a vehicle, inspiration and opportunity. Students are encouraged to identify and then transpose the qualities, mood, tone, styles, techniques and methods found in diverse art forms and apply themes of tragedy, troubles and personal struggle to produce original visual displays of art.
Within a departmentalized structure, one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding challenges for the teacher is to develop and implement an interdisciplinary course. This unit meets two important goals: it brings art in relation to history and culture and makes connections between art and other disciplines.
investigates works of art in different genres and brings that understanding to the middle school classroom. It fits well in our philosophy at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet that the arts are the core of education and share many characteristics which should be taught simultaneously.
will make children read, look, articulate, examine, interpret, think, solve, invent, create, synthesize, judge and reflect.