In narrowing representations of American culture through visual art to a manageable topic for a unit, I have chosen to focus on art that records and represents individuals and/or groups of people or movements within our culture that to the majority of Americans are invisible and marginalized. It is not a coincidence that the at-risk high school students in the program where I teach, and for whom I am designing this unit, are for the most part Black and Hispanic, and could be counted among these marginalized, disenfranchised people, largely
to the majority of American society. While it seems oxymoronic to think of visual art as a representation of something invisible, a whole range of American art includes marginalized, disenfranchised, and often
people, groups, and events in our culture.
American poet Stanley Kunitz writes: “Art is the chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence,” (Kunitz, 11). Perhaps that is why, as a high school English teacher, I have come, more and more, to incorporate and sometimes feature visual art: paintings, photographs, sculpture, and murals, in the literature units I teach. The chalice, or mere earthly “cup,” also holds the memories and souls of humanity, the world and its cultures, recorded and represented.
The intent of my unit is to teach my at-risk high school students at the Wilbur Cross Annex the skills for discerning American culture (the wine) as it has been poured, (recorded and represented) into paintings, sculpture, murals, and photographs, enhanced with short stories, poetry, storybooks, and perhaps even documentaries. I challenge myself to experiment with rubrics that my students can apply to the various genres that will allow them to view or
the art that represents our culture. The better structured the rubric, the more access my students will have to the art.
There is a lot of talk among English teachers about
, a process by which students analyze, interpret, connect with, and critique a piece of literature. Why not
rendering, a process by which students analyze, interpret, connect with and critique visual art? One preliminary rubric that I have used successfully for
a painting is a four step process: students first
: identify objects, figures, and forms in a painting; then they describe colors, hues and tones; and finally they identify the composition: angles, shadows, lines, repetition (in visual art this is called
) of shapes or lines, in other words, the flow of the piece. The next level of
what the painting represents through its objects, figures and forms, through the colors, hues and tones and through the composition or flow. It is here that students will speculate how it represents and comments on our culture. They might ponder what value the artist is expressing, what statement he/she is making through the art. It is at this level that students may need to turn a piece of literature or the Internet to research the individual or event being represented. Next, students will
the art through identifying with emotions or conflict that may be expressed. Questions to ask are: When have you felt like that character, or, for example, where in your life has or does this loneliness, conflict, or fear exist? The level of
has many facets, depending on the piece of literature or art. And finally, they will
how effectively they think the artist made his/her statement, representing, in this case, invisible people in our culture.
As a culminating project in my unit each student will choose and reproduce a piece of visual art that in some way represents invisible people in our culture, or some may choose to be daring and
a piece of art that represents what they consider to be invisible people in American culture or that represents
as an invisible person in this culture, thus experiencing, in a modest way, what it feels like to reproduce or
something tangible outside of oneself, something one can own and view with pride. Taking a close look at Kunitz’s quote, I find that there is the artist to consider, that person who “pours” the wine into the chalice. It is intriguing to think that the artist is actually becoming the art that he/she is creating. Kunitz says in one of his poems, “gradually, I’m changing to a word.” Perhaps a jazz composer gradually is changing to a “chord.” The artist gradually becomes the art he/she is creating. Through the final project, I want my students to have a sense of this.