What does a middle school student need for inspiration? It is a question that all of us who are teachers of this age group struggle to find suitable answers for on a regular basis. I feel I have an inspirational advantage to teaching art to this age because art can provide a necessary outlet for expression that these students sometimes desperately need. Usually, things that are new to them inspire them or, more importantly, speak to them. They tend to relate to art that shows emotion and tells a story. Exposing students to different types of art and the artists who create them is essential in any art education program. By using a variety of artists for each unit I teach, I am bound to strike a chord with many of the students. Also, in dealing with middle-school-aged students, success is a key component. If the student feels success, it helps them to participate more constructively in a class.
My most important goal in teaching art, not only in this unit, but in my everyday teaching, is to help students understand that the meaning of art is often found within the spectator. I often find myself redirecting the question of "what does that mean" onto the student who asked it, because the answer is what does it mean to YOU. It is important to teach students that artists have a valuable message to send, even if the message is understood differently by everyone. This unit touches upon these very questions and will have the students also asking one another the same during their own artistic process.
We will find inspiration by looking at and discussing various pieces of art by a handful of artists. Students, I hope, will look at these artists and their work as an inspiration and starting point for their own ideas. An important part of the Visual Arts curriculum both on a local and national level is the reflection on and discussion of works of art from a wide range of time periods and genres. The artists who are listed below and their work will engage the students in this type of artistic critique and discussion.
Louise Nevelson begins our discussion of inspiration because she was herself an avid recycler and her pieces of art are extremely inspiring. Of course, what Louise Nevelson was doing in the 1930s was not yet called recycling. Nevelson was a collector of materials. Her work is generally made with wood: tabletop pieces as well as various throw away items that she resurrected. Nevelson's father owned a lumberyard and at a very young age she was creating environments out of salvaged wood. Her sculptures can be used as a teaching tool in a variety of ways. For instance, these pieces provide an example of the very type of art I am trying to teach, abstract with a variety of meaning. The simplistic beauty and quality of her sculpture will inspire students. The materials she used are recognizable as common pieces of wood that many people have seen on decks, gardens or in garages. In my experience, students in middle school respond to her art because they feel it is something they can create themselves. Some of Nevelson's pieces that will be discussed are Mirror Shadow XXXXIII, 1987; Half Moon I, 1961; Silent Music I, 1964; Dawn's Wedding Chapel I, 1959; and Forgotten City, 1955.
The work of Joseph Cornell is both mysterious and powerful. It is the type of art that can create curiosity, wonder and awe. We will discuss his shadowboxes and found objects, or assemblage. Assemblage is a style of art that puts together various types of found objects in order to create an artistic composition. Joseph Cornell is an inspiring artist, especially to students of this age, because they seem to relate to his work. They relate to Cornell because many of his pieces appear to be an antiquated method of scrapbooking, with a box instead of a book. He uses pieces of materials students may very well have in their garages or junk drawers. Cornell had no formal artistic training. He, like Louise Nevelson, was a collector of things. He created visual messages with items that symbolically represented people and times. Cornell used a variety of materials, which he collected himself such as photographs, glass, and literature and arranged them in boxes.
Joseph Cornell will be valuable to our discussions because he had no formal art training he just simply placed things creatively in boxes, which created an identity for each piece of art. This is always an interesting fact for students to learn. Art can be what you make it, and you do not need to train extensively at an art school in order to effectively send a message through art. The parallel between Cornell and what I am hoping to teach is two-fold. It is important for students to see an artist who uses found objects creatively, as well as, an artist who sends a message to his audience. Students will create assemblage sculptures using found objects to further encourage the recycling or salvaging of objects to create art, thus reinforcing the lessening of waste. Cornell's artwork will create a platform for inspiration and ideas.
Some of Cornell's pieces that will be discussed are Untitled (Cockatoo and Corks), 1948; Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945; Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), 1945-6; Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943; Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936. Most of his pieces can be seen online at www.ibiblio.org.
Betye Saar has been creating political statements through her assemblage and installations for many years. Her piece, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is a powerful statement criticizing of racial oppression in the 1960s. Most of her work is assemblage pieces using dolls, canoes and other found objects. There is deep meaning in these pieces and they invoke powerful emotions about race and inequality. This artist is relevant to this unit because of the importance and strength of her message. I am looking for students to convey the same message about recycling and consumer waste.
Saar is also pertinent to this unit in that she uses materials that are uncommon to most artists. Students can use Beyte Saar as an example of how to use various materials to send an important message. Students will also discuss Limbo: A Transitional State or Place, 1994. This piece is a large scale installation of a canoe floating over branches, which holds two chairs on either side of a table of burning candles. "The objects in the work interact to suggest many meanings related to journeys, shadow lives, and perhaps escape into death or dreams." (2) We will discuss what we think the meaning of this piece of art is and how it might speak to our own personal experiences in life, death and dreams.
We will look at the work of contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates pieces of art from natural materials such as leaves, sticks, feathers, etc, and then photographs them immediately after their creation. I have included this artist because I find his work inspiring, and I also felt that students need to see examples of artwork that does not need any materials, recycled or otherwise, that cannot be found outside one's front door. The purpose of this unit is for students to be inspired by pieces of art that are made from unusual materials. It is also for students to see that you don't need canvases and paint to create art. You can create art with and for anything. Andy Goldsworthy is an artist that most students have not been exposed to but one that they can truly learn from. These pieces by Goldsworthy can show students just how beautiful simple can be.
We will look at Recycle artists, artists who make art out of recycled materials. I found a great example of this type of art online. Clare Graham is a recycle artist whose work is fascinating. His website www.claregraham.com has excellent examples that students will find interesting and inspiring. Some examples of his pieces are using aluminum cans to make coffee tables, bottle caps to make chandeliers or making sculptures with materials such as buttons, yardsticks, swizzle sticks, dominos or scrabble tiles. His body of work is a great example for the types of sculptures the students will be creating themselves. Students will have an open discussion about these artists, compare them and discuss likes, dislikes and thoughts about this type of art.
The wide range of artists I have chosen for the students to look at is to provide them with an understanding of the messages that these artists send through their work. I believe that each work has its own meaning and this meaning is sometimes something we can understand and learn from. Interpretation of art and the placement of value are evaluated differently based on the viewer. I hope that students can identify and relate to at least one of the artists presented to them through this unit. With that said, there are also many artists who could have been used in this unit. Judy Chicago's, Dinner Table could certainly be a piece that could be discussed. Jean-Michel Basquiat who used windows and doors to paint on could have also been discussed.
This unit will give students an opportunity to send their own message and to help them gain an understanding of the importance of that message. So often we think the little things we do each day to reduce our carbon footprint are irrelevant. I want to show my students that this is not the case. It is my objective for them to show their audience that they believe in recycling and lessening their waste. I am hoping to create or raise awareness in my students about their impact on the environment and their ability to make a difference. We will achieve this by creating pieces of art that use exclusively recycled materials, or materials that can be found in nature.