The purpose of this unit is to bring a different understanding to elementary school children of the significance of Maya art and their traditions as they relate to our daily live. This will be accomplished throughout the study of representative art and artifacts of the Maya culture of the first millenium. For such a purpose I propose to study some of the most representative vases, vessels, sculptures and artistic representations of Maya art as samples of one of the most important cultural centers in the Americas with the goal of better understanding humanity’s artistic and human legacy. In the process of meeting this objective I want to directly focus on providing the students with the tools necessary to start seeing these artifacts, and by extension the world around them. For this purpose I will weave in our discussions the most important visual elements of art: position, size, color, shape, line, texture, and density which will allow the students to better appreciate the world around them.
I intend to cover the important factors that need to be present in a culture to be able to flourish and give rise to a cultural heritage that is passed from generation to generation. As part of this study the setting in which the culture rises, the materials they used, the social order in which it takes places, the believes and costumes of its people, and the materials and uses they give to their representations become another focus of study.
This unit will be an integrated unit ranging from language arts to social studies. This unit will be centered on district wide goals of literacy and social development through the focused study of above mentioned aspects of the Maya culture. My focus in artifacts that have survived the passing of history, the materials they used, the purposes they gave to such artifacts, and the messages they portrayed will allow my students to look for and to create samples in our time and culture that tell future generations who we are, what is important to us, and the reasons why these artifacts are representative of our own history.
I will describe the rich and ancient traditions by looking at the artistic and cultural heritage of Mesoamerica as represented by model artifacts of the Maya culture that gave way to modern Mexico and surrounding countries. For such a purpose, I will focus on the materials that the Maya used, including the purposes which ascribed them. Thus, the study of the available materials to the Maya represents a geological study of the areas that the Maya settled and the make up of the artifacts that they left. An example of the importance that the available materials had in Maya culture can be seen in their use of flint, a very hard , fine-grained quartz, and obsisidan, a volcanic glass the color of dried blood. The Maya fashioned their tools, knives, spatulas, blades, from flint and their weapons in the form of arrow-heads and spear tips from obsidian. Other materials, such as clay and limestone, were also used in the creation of both useful and decorative objects such as vases, vessels, estelae, whistles, and monuments.
The influences that native Maya peoples have had in other cultures such as the United States, as well as in its own people, will better help my students to understand themselves and other people. Through the study of representative cultural artifacts of the Maya my students will have a better understanding of the importance that the Mexican culture has, including its languages, artistic representations, symbols, images and style of living, and the influence that has had in our modern civilization. The students will make visual and written representations of their lives through the use of the arts to relate current events which they want someone in the future to “read.”
As part of the hands-on component, the students will be able to create their own interpretations of the areas of study. Thus, the students will create a series of sculptures, vases, and glyphs that will be representative art works and that speak of the essence of the lesson. For example, when we study the costumes of the Maya people the students will create a sculpture to reflect some of the facts that we have learned. We will make use of the same materials and methods of creating our art objects as did the early Maya. When we study chocolate, and the importance it had in the Maya culture and its history up to modern times, the students will create a container for storing it where we would depict our own life stories in a similar way to the ones we observed at the art gallery.
As an example, following the Maya pictorial pottery, cylindrical vases were approached by the Maya painter in one of two ways. In the first one, the painter divided the vessel in two: an obverse and a reverse, usually divided by a line of hieroglyphics and with the same imagery in either side; or in a continuous image wrapping around the vessel forcing the viewer to rotate it in order to see the whole picture. This second type of vessel included long hieroglyphic lines of text usually depicting and retelling the occasion why the vessel was created, the purpose it had, to whom it had been offered, and at times it also had the name of its creator.
I feel that there is no substitute to seeing the actual art objects. Therefore, I will be focusing on a few representative objects held in the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Peabody Museum. Among these objects we will encounter samples of cylindrical vessels that record daily Maya life. A simple lesson on what a museum and its purpose is would precede our visit to the gallery. This will allow the students to start thinking about what is representative of our culture and times, as well as seeing in person the actual Maya objects. However, one of the drawbacks of ancient objects, art collections, and museums in general, is that they are very fragile and so valuable that do not allow the students to touch or get close to the object. Also, objects are normally at the adult’s eye level making it almost impossible for children to appreciate and study in detail. Today’s technology does offer an answer to at least the second problem in that it is possible to “zoom in” to those vases in such a way that much more detail can be shown and observed. At Clinton Avenue school we are lucky to own an LCD projector which allows us to project onto a large screen anything that we can view on the computer screen or a VCR. Therefore, another important resource we will be able to use in the school, via the internet, will be the many one web sites that depict the vessels in a two dimensional way, allowing us to view the whole image. This will provide the students with a complete view of the composition. The museum will provide us with an actual size object while the internet will allow us to explore more closely those objects. An excellent resource for this purpose in studying the Maya vases is that of the Kerr Maya Vase Archives. It can be accessed by World Wide Web. The archives includes over 1,200 vases depicted through the use of peripheral photography (rollout photographs of cylindrical objects) which are grouped by similar characteristics, styles, and elements in the following categories:
white background with black line painting, black rim
codex style: light background with dark painting, red rim
incised: fine line detailing
molded: pressed from mold so as to make multiple copies
polychrome: many colors and combinations
This database allows also for keyword searches allowing the viewer to observe the same theme represented in one vase by more than a different scribe making it possible to compare the styles. The above characteristics also will provide the students with a rule to categorize other Maya objects we will study throughout the unit.
One of the most important aspects of viewing art, and this is a skill which at this early age we are continuously working on, is that of making visual observations. This skill carries on to all the areas of the curriculum and we can say that those students that pay close attention to the details, no matter whether it is an animate or inanimate object, a mathematical equation or a piece of art, are able to problem solve more effectively than those who are unable to do so. Even the student who does not write or read will benefit of being able to verbalize those observations placing them at the same level than those who are literate. This unit, therefore, will emphasize the thinking skills necessary for problem solving through the development of observational skills, without the need to read or write the labels that explain what the object is, and will allow all the children to succeed.
In looking either at the actual object or at a picture on the internet of one of these vessels, the children will first describe through visual observations what they see; the composition, color, elements, materials, and finally will hypothesize what the vessel may be and what the intended use was. As an example, the students will look at a vessel with a simple realistic composition such as: K1599 “Two noblemen bring flowers to an ahau” (Davis,1999). Here it is possible to begin by asking the children to describe what they see. How many people are there in the picture? What are they doing? What colors do they see? Is there any writing?, etc., Then, we can click on the picture and have it augmented to get much more detail in the way that it would be difficult to get when observing the vase in person. The children will, in cooperative groups, make a list of all the objects that they could recognize and then compare notes to see what each of them observed. One of the central figures in this vase is that of the scribe. If the children did not recognize the brush on the headpiece, I will bring it to their attention and will ask what is his occupation. This will be the point of departure to talk about painting, writing, etc. We will proceed by looking at other samples of vases, sculptures, etc., that depict the scribe and provide them with some background knowledge of what he did; how at times he was represented by an animal, the hieroglyphics associated with them, etc.
Another advantage of using technology such as the internet is that many of the art pieces are already categorized by topic in such a way that the lead themselves to making observations. One clear example of this is the group of rollout pictures depicting the ball game. The children will be able to easily come up with the essential elements of ball playing by looking at the different vessels that depict the game.
I will add at least one other art object, so as to allow the students to be able to make some simple comparisons regarding differences in materials, purpose, make up, and visual elements . It will allow the student to synthesize what they have learned and to start making comparisons to other art objects.