This Wednesday, I attended a workshop at the University of Michigan Museum of Art on a painting by Benjamin West:
During the workshop, I noted different strategies employed by the docents and speakers to “teach” us about the art and recorded strategies for using art – as well as general teaching strategies - in the English and/or Social Studies classroom:

1) If you’re using a painting to illustrate a historic event you’re studying or to give historic context to a work of literature you’re teaching, project the image of the artwork and give a mini-lecture on the history behind the work.  Also show a map of the relevant region and talk discuss the region’s relationship with the rest of the world and relevant cultural information.

2) Structure lectures in a Q&A format.  State the question and then answer it.

3) As an introduction to a historic events, show students a historic painting that illustrates the event and talk about the events that led up to the one depicted in the artwork.  Instead of telling students the details of the event, have them make predictions about what’s going to happen based on the artwork and the info you’ve given them on the events leading up to the topic you’re studying.  Then, teach the actual details of the event.  Afterwards, have students compare what actually happened to their predictions.  Also show the artwork again and have students identify what they’ve learned by pointing to particular things in the artwork.

4) To hook students’ interest before studying a particular work, project it alongside a quote that speaks to its legacy or makes a provocative statement about it.  You can project the text of the quote or introduce a lecture by speaking the quote aloud.

5) The exhibit consisted of several artworks – portraits, maps, writings, etc – centered on a single topic: General Wolf.  Also posted in the exhibit were large quotes printed on the wall.  These could be quotes from soldiers’ diaries, quotes from historians, quotes from artists who depicted the subject, etc.  I recommend giving students a “gallery” experience regarding a particular subject by presenting them with a variety of works, including quotes or literary passages, that all comment on a particular event.  Students can then synthesize the information to develop a comprehensive understanding of the subject.  They’ll notice patterns but also contradictions which will raise questions and drive their thinking deeper.

6) When looking at portraits, consider if they’re “vignettes” or more complex narratives.  When I say vignette, I mean a portrait that captures a single, focused moment.  There’s one thing going on that you’re meant to focus on.  Other portraits have various things going on in the image simultaneously.  PROJECT IDEA: If you’re having students create a self-portrait or portrait of a character to show their understanding of identity, motives, emotion, thoughts, and goals, consider having them integrate multiple images into a composite portrait.  It’ll be interesting to deconstruct and then reconstruct t in a character analysis.

7) When studying the historic facts alongside an artwork that portrays the event, look for accuracies and inaccuracies between the history and the art-story.  You could also teach vocabulary alongside this  - things like contradiction, paradox, objective vs. subjective, portrayal, etc.

8) Look at multiple works that tell varying narratives about a particular event.  You could study tone and consider why the artists portrayed the event differently.  You can also talk about artists and artists in terms of reliability.  How do we know what’s true?  Can fiction make a true statement?  How do we piece together contradictory information to draw the most accurate conclusion?

9) Why do authors/artists make changes, additions, and deletions to their characterization of something?

10) The intersection of portrait and idealization.  Are realistic works like landscapes and portraits more than representations of something?  In what ways are they “re-presentations”, or produced and constructed and skewed, representations of something?  Why do this?

11) Historic paintings are often a combination of depicting anatomy, architecture, documenting the landscape, etc.

12) Instead of showing the artwork in its entirety, crop a few images out of it, showing them to students one-at-a-time.  Have students analyze each image on its own and have them try to piece together what they think the larger image looks like and is about.  Then, show the entire artwork and have students reflect on what’s similar/different that what they expected and how their understanding of the work has evolved.  Doing this makes reading the image more like reading a book.  With a book, things are handed to you in disconnected bits and pieces.  You, as the reader, have to piece things together as you read.  It doesn’t all come together until you finish the book.

13) On a museum visit, gallery walk, or online image exploration, have students seek out a work that illustrates a scene or the relationship between characters in a work you’re reading.  Have students draw parallels between what they see in the artwork and their reading.  This requires analysis of written text and visual imagery and also requires synthesis to draw the parallels.  It’s a nice higher level learning idea.

This work, "Making Rainbows" by Lynnea Strout stopped me in front of its display window as Kyle and I meandered around ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. I was initially drawn to the colors: I love pastels. They're sweet and playful. And I loved how the paint was splattered on the canvas, as though the silhouetted boy was blowing the paint bubbles onto the canvas in real time. To me, the silhouetted boy could be any boy, or any child, a symbol of our childhoods and simple pleasures. Life seemed so adventurous. We were so curious. So imaginative. Life was vibrant with opportunities and mysteries and games. This painting captures that idealized portrait of childhood for me.

The painting evokes a playful mood, but I would imagine the process of creating it was a form of play for the artist. The messy paint splattered everywhere. Blowing the bubbles. Channeling one's inner child. Creating. Playing.

It's visual cotton candy. Simple, sweet, and full of whimsy. But it's also a transportive work that made me think back on playing skip-it, dancing around with my little ponies, coloring with sidewalk chalk, and pretending I was a mermaid, splashing around in the tub with goggles on.

On the ArtPrize website, Strout says of her work: "I'm hoping that when people see this piece they will remember the happiness they felt when they were little and loved making their own rainbows." She definitely succeeded in doing so for me.

    About Me

    A lover of literature and the arts and an advocate for global awareness and active citizenship, I spend my days with high school English and Social Studies students exploring why it all matters and how they can have a voice in the world.  This is my space to document and reflect on my practice, note happenings in education, and share my appreciation for the arts.


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