The old saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ suggests that visual communication can be as or more effective than a verbal language for the expression of ideas. When I am at a loss for words, or cannot seem to find the words to express a certain idea, I use visual references and drawing to communicate more easily and effectively. This has become important, as I do not speak Spanish like many of my students. Many public works of art are created for much the same reason. They strive to educate or inform the public on a given topic without words. My personal mission, as a visual arts teacher, is to provide my students with a third language, a visual language. Having this visual literacy, my students gain the ability to understand the world they see around them and think critically about the art that can guide them through history and beyond.
My unit is intended for students in the seventh grade. These students are at an age where they are beginning to question their role in society and how they can impact it. Students at this level enthusiastically accept the challenge of analyzing artists, artworks and the history behind them. Our school is in a unique position to stimulate this analysis as it is currently under reconstruction and an element of the process includes a public sculpture commissioned by New Haven’s Percent for Art Program. This sculpture depicts a specific moment in history, the fleet of Christopher Columbus seeing the shoreline of America. The artist’s intent is to spark the viewer’s curiosity concerning this historically significant moment. I believe that the sculpture offers a great opportunity for our students to develop these critical skills to read visual evidence with a deep historical perspective. By creating this study of public art and the significance surrounding its conception I wish to give my students the ability to use visual literacy to analyze and interpret this artwork. These tools will compel them not to take what they see for granted and to begin questioning their visual world.
Using public art in this unit offers a unique learning experience for our students given the multifaceted influences involved in public art’s conception and execution. Public art is accessible to everyone in the community but often over looked and this will give the students an opportunity to view their environment with a new perspective. Many people pass elements of the built environment without any awareness of them or their intended purpose or meaning. Oblivious to the object’s purpose, many do not realize the political nature behind the public work or the process that happens before the artist is asked to create an idea for the space. The general population does not reflect upon the intent of the patron or commissioning entity. What message did the patron have in mind when soliciting the work of art? Was the message what the artist had in mind truly the same as the patron’s? Visual artists often struggle with the fact that viewers bring different background knowledge that influence the interpretation of their work. For example, if a person observes a statue of a man holding a paint pallet and paintbrush, but has never seen these before, how are they to interpret the statue as that of an artist? A vocabulary of visual icons, such as a paintbrush and pallet will give the viewer the tools they need to read an artwork. My intent in this unit is to bring public artworks to the attention of my students and give them the tools they need to interpret the artworks intention, execution, and reception. I do not want my students to take for granted what they see, rather I would like them to question and interpret the artist and patron’s choices, intended purposes and messages when creating a public artwork. This unit aims to empower these students to ask critical questions that will give them a deeper understanding and appreciation of their environment and the people who created it.
In this unit we will focus on artwork created for public spaces that the students have access to in New Haven. I have limited my selections to artwork from the current Percent for Art Project and the 1930 Public Works Art Project due to their commonality in nature. We will begin with The Percent for Art sculpture
Rodrigo de Triana
by artist Jose Buscaglia. This is the most accessible artwork for my students, being that it’s placed in their school and should intrigue them because it was chosen to represent them and their community. Other artworks were chosen for their location within the school district, and topics such as founding fathers and immigration. Immigration is of particular interest since many of my students have immigrated recently to the United States. We will end with the production of a public artwork created by the students for our school building.