Friday, November 20, 2009

A month ago I was invited to a sixth grade class in St. Louis to talk about my biography of the artist Romare Bearden. I hadn’t looked at this book for a couple of years and when I reread it, I was struck by the beautiful job the designer did of emphasizing the artist’s collages by using blocks of colorful backgrounds. Bearden, himself, actually began with blocks of color paper to make his innovative collages. The design, which played off Bearden’s style, helped to unify and enhance word and image.
Although I planned to show slides, I wanted to present the material to the students without recapping the whole book. After all, the teacher had read it before my visit and there were several copies in the classroom. I decided it would be more fun to ask questions and draw them into a discussion right away. I began with a quote by Bearden.
“I think the artist has to be something like a whale, swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.”
Then I asked, “What do you think Romare Bearden meant by this quote? Why does a whale swim with his mouth open?”
“If you were a whale swimming with your mouth wide open through your daily life, what would you be taking in? Could you use any of it as an inspiration for writing or making art? What would you use?”
One student said his life was so boring, if he were a whale, he’d spit everything back. Another talked about swimming to school that day through waves of falling leaves. And so began a dialogue about using the common, everyday aspects of one’s life as material for art. Certainly some of Bearden’s most compelling collages portray his memories of childhood – family and friends going about the ordinary pleasures, as well as the difficulties, of their days. His work is a visual autobiography that traces his childhood in a small town in North Carolina, to his years in Pittsburg living with grandparents, to his adult life in Harlem and the Caribbean. Bearden’s artworks celebrate his African-American culture, which was especially relevant for this group of inner-city kids.
In his collages, Bearden experimented with a variety of materials, from photographs, magazine images, newspaper, paint, fabric, foil, string, pins to colored paper and more. He drew and added color with pencil, charcoal, ink, oil, watercolor, acrylic, or spray paint. After he put down blocks of colored paper, he pasted layers on top, arranging and rearranging until he felt satisfied. Reminds me of revising my writing –arranging and rearranging until I get it right.
A few weeks later the teacher invited me back to share the artwork the class created after my presentation. The walls were lined with collages by these young artists, who used family photographs, photos of buildings and scenes in their neighborhood, newspaper cuttings, construction and tissue paper, tin foil, magic markers, glue sticks and scissors. Under each of their collages, they had written first person accounts of the experience relating to the image. A creative teacher. A responsive group of students. I felt like the whale swimming through their world with my mouth wide open, taking it all in.


Shannon O'Donnell said...

What a wonderful lesson. It sounds like it generated some very relevant discussion. I wish I could see the artwork created by those kids. Isn't it amazing what vast learning can come from such small books? Now I have to read this one! :)

Susan Kuklin said...

Terrific post, Jan.
It reaffirms just how important art - and artists - are to one's personal growth and well-being. What a great teacher! Thanks for sharing this with us.