An Art Teacher Goes Abroad

When the opportunity to accompany four of my students to Peru this summer arose, I was more than thrilled (if not also a little apprehensive) to take on the role of “chaperone.” Almost as soon as the school year had ended, my students and I, along with four other adolescents and their chaperone from Green Acres, boarded our plane and set off for Lima.

The trip, an exchange really, places students with host families for three weeks. Two of those weeks they attend school at Leonardo Da Vinci, while the other week is spent visiting Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and the abundance of archeological sites in the region. Like many chaperones to come before me, it was this latter week that I envisioned as the highlight of the trip. That week, which I now affectionately refer to as “the summer of rocks,” was indeed an experience of a lifetime.

But something else marvelous and magical happened on this trip, quite organically and without any hype:

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This here is a bottle cap mosaic. During one of my first days roaming the campus of Leonardo, I came across a large collection of colorful bottle caps. They filled a glass aquarium (something I find particularly amusing looking back), and overflowed into a series of plastic containers. All of this sat in a kind of enclave, seemingly designed to house a large flower pot or sculpture. In this regard, I almost immediately read the collection of caps as a contemporary art installation. My second thought took me to the Maker Space at my own school, where we have our own collections of objects, occasionally in such large quantities that I am left perplexed as to why anyone would have accumulated so many foam snowmen, monographed stickers, or metallic pizza trays. But I digress.

Mosaics had been on my mind for a while. Some of the best projects I can recall from my early teaching days had been mosaics. Like these:

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The tree and the flower were made by a group of 3, 4, and 5 year olds during my days as a preschool art teacher. Students were free to meander through “centers” like math, science, reading, and my own “art studio”, spending anywhere from one minute to one hour. This choice-based approach (which I have written about in a previous post), is a great way of getting students excited about learning because it cultivates curiosity and autonomy over the monolithic culture that dominates the majority of classrooms in the United States and elsewhere. In the art studio, Choice lends itself well to collaborative projects because it is centered around process. Students can contribute however much or little they want, but they are all investing something towards a larger goal. And the contribution is authentic, enthusiastic, and un-forced.

Despite having  a huge supply of ceramic mosaic pieces in my current classroom, and having successfully made collaboration a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy,  in my first year at Barnesville the list was long and those ceramic bits sat waiting for another year. The idea, however–to facilitate another collaborative mosaic–would not.

As chance would have it, the same day I came across the bottle caps, one of the English teachers at Leonardo asked if I might be interested in doing an art project with her sixth graders. Not only that, she wondered if I might somehow use the bottle caps. I enthusiastically agreed and the bottle cap mosaic was born.

In another twist of fate, the sixth graders were entering a unit on the environment, a passion of mine and a theme I return to frequently with my own students. The bottle caps lent themselves so well to a conversation about plastic in our oceans, and it was from that conversation (and some help from the internet) that project planning for an ocean-themed mosaic emerged.

Students sort caps by color.

Operating on a limited time frame, I recycled a lecture (I use that term loosely) from a previous lesson, which discussed how artists use data, or “visualize data” to make work that engages with some of the most pressing issues facing our world. In this case, the issue is water pollution, the data is how much plastic is dumped into the ocean (more than 8 tons per year), and the artwork is a mosaic made out of plastic and a snapshot of the ocean.

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Barnesville and Green Acres students, along with the sixth grade class. Our students helped with various aspects of the project. 

What I love about this project is how it functions simultaneously as a celebration of the diversity of life and beauty within the ocean and as a warning of how human activity is threatening this natural resource. As students worked sorting and gluing the caps, it seemed there was a never ending supply. Even when we ran out of yellow, it happened that one of the host families was connected with the Inca Kola factory, and the very next day they brought in a large plastic bag filled exclusively with yellow caps. I was at once thrilled to submerge my hands into the pool of caps, and alarmed by how easily they were acquired.

The prevalence of plastic in our lives has become such that it is hard to envision a time when it did not exist. In truth, plastic as we know it today came about less than a century ago as a result of one of the most deadly wars in history. While great measures have been taken to encourage the recycling of plastics, the process is costly and fails to address the need for more biodegradable alternatives.

One of the most effective ways of changing the way plastic is regarded (cheap, disposable, efficient) is by simply drawing attention to its pervasiveness. The speed at which we were able to collect and create this artwork documents the powerful role plastic plays in our lives, and in a more nuanced way, underscores how the rampant use of plastic communicates our values as a society.

Art can become the platform for changing how we see and think about the things that have become engrained in our daily lives. Put more simply, art makes us tourists in our own lives. From this unique vantage point, we can begin to do the work of deciding what sorts of objects, people, relationships, and values we want for those lives.

 

 

 

Google Doodles by 8th

Eighth graders began this project with a screening of the documentary, Home. This film looks at how climate change is affecting our planet’s natural resources and in turn our earth’s population.

Each student then chose from a variety of issues related to climate change, including efforts to stop global warming. With their topic in hand, they created a Google Doodle inspired by their issue.

Silhouette Drawings & Cyanotypes

Fourth grade learned about Victorian Era silhouette art. This popular and affordable style of portraiture required only a black piece of paper, scissors, and careful observation on the part of the artist. Some artists even built elaborate machines to make the process easier. Students used Makerspace to invent their own machines for capturing each other’s silhouettes. Then, using pictures taken in profile, students cut out their silhouettes and traced them to white paper. They filled their images with words that describe themselves.

With the advent of photography, silhouette art became less popular. One of the most direct ways to capture a photograph is a method called cyanotyping. All it requires is paper coated with the correct chemicals, an object, and 30 minutes in the sun. Students cut their silhouettes once again, this time out of black paper. We lay the cut silhouettes on top of the cyanotype paper and left them in the sun. The silhouettes act as a kind of stencil, preventing light from passing through to the paper. After 30 minutes the paper is washed in water to remove any residual chemicals, and left to dry. Some students added leaves and other natural materials to their cyanotypes as a kind of wallpaper to their image.    

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Sun Dance Skulls by 2nd

The Sun Dance is an important tradition among the Lakota-Sioux. This dance takes place during the summer and is a celebration of the gifts of the year. Because the buffalo provide an abundance of food and materials for clothing and shelter, the skull of the buffalo is an important part of the ritual. Often adorned with paint and feathers, these skulls are transformed into works of art.

Using an armature of cardboard and tape, second graders used plaster gauze to create their own buffalo skulls. They then used acrylic paint to add color and pattern.

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African Masks by 3rd

 

Following our study of Pablo Picasso, third graders looked at how the artist’s work was influenced by African Art. Exaggerated and often geometric facial features can be observed in both this 19th century Fang mask and in Picasso’s famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Third graders created a paper template for their ceramic mask, which also emphasized dramatic facial features and symmetry. The template was then traced to a slab of clay, and additional details were added. A glazing technique, similar to wood staining, was used to complete the masks.

Hand-Lettered Secrets

This is just one of the many wonderful lessons I came home with from this year’s National Art Education Conference:

Students in sixth through eighth grade wrote a secret on a card, folded it, and dropped it into a bowl. Then each student picked a secret out of the bowl and created a text based work of art considering font and page layout.

To aid in the craftsmanship of the finished work, we used the app Whitelines, which allows students to work on a gridded paper. You then hold your phone over the finished artwork, and the app removes the grid and ups the contrast. Color can be added before this step, but I found the app had a harder time recognizing color so we added color after printing the first version.

 

Artists A-Z (A Kindergarten Alphabet Art Show)

“Ms. Eargle, this is like trick-or-treating but better because instead of collecting candy you get to collect artwork!” -Zachary

Throughout the year, Kindergarteners spent each week learning about an artist or art technique whose name corresponds to a letter in the alphabet. By late April, each student had a portfolio of 26 artworks, ranging from painting to drawing, sculpture, and even site-specific installation.

With their vocabulary of artists in hand, we traveled to the National Gallery of Art, where students looked for the work of artists we had studied in class.

This day long field trip was followed by an art exhibition that took over much of the wall space throughout the school. Family and friends joined the young artists, as they sung a song about all of the artists they had been introduced to. Then each family dispersed into the hallways to look at a year’s worth of work.

A-C (Karel Appel, Charles Burchfield, Alexander Calder)

D-F (Jean Dubuffet, Shannon Ebner, Frida Kahlo)

G-I (Gerhard Richter, Howard Hodgkin, Zon Ito)

J-L (Jasper Johns, Gustav Klimt, Annie Leibovitz)

M-O (Henri Matisse, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg)

P-R (Pablo Picasso, Quilt, Faith Ringgold)

S-U (Georges Seurat, Wayne Thiebaud, Jerry Uelsmann)

V-Z (Vincent Van Gogh, Weaving, X-Ray, Jack Youngerman, Zuperman!)

Estefania said she likes Ebner because that art spelled words and she liked to spell Friendship with art.

Madeline liked Richter and loved spreading and mixing colors with the squeegee.

Nathan like Zuperman because he loved turning himself in to a super hero with powers.

Patrick likes Nevelson because he loved working with wood to make things the way she did.

Penny likes Annie Leibovitz because she likes to pose for the camera.

Peyton likes Frida Kahlo because Frida likes animals and so does Peyton.

Ruby likes Van Gogh because the backgrounds of his paintings are colorful and interesting.

Saanvi likes Annie Leibovitz because she liked taking pictures and posing.

Zachary likes Van Gogh  because he likes the swirls and stars and colors in Starry Night.