Teacher Reflection

Anne's Classroom

I taught this course face-to-face, and so would moderate an actual discussion in this activity, and let me say, the discussions can really hum! So much meaning can be made in a short time, and the students feel their ownership of that meaning.

Anne Wenzel
Arkansas Arts Academy

How the Crystal Bridges Courses Align with ELA Standards

I taught both Art Appreciation and American Identity and Art + Process: Creating a Body of Work last year as an overall framework for “Art History” at a small, arts-focused charter school, but I am an ELA teacher by trade, and my love of rhetoric – of unpacking the choices of an artist or writer and examining the effects of those choices on our understanding of the work’s content – found a natural home within this subject matter and within the frameworks of Crystal Bridges’ excellently designed courses.

Before I taught these two courses, I often began my year as an English teacher using images as texts, the paintings of Edward Hopper, for example. In our image-driven culture, students are “reading” images all the time and constructing them for consumption, which means – whether they’re conscious of it or not – they have a sense of audience, purpose and desired response, and a sense of what techniques to use to bring about that response. In short, they’re thinking rhetorically. Also, with a work of art such as a painting, the image also appears as a gestalt, making it quite easy to move from a specific detail to that detail’s effect on the whole, whereas a literary text unfolds and develops over time and is – I think – more challenging to consider in the same holistic way.

In both Art Appreciation and Art + Process, each unit begins with a specific lesson in observation and analysis: two works of art are posed next to each other, and – in a “See, Think, Wonder” activity – the student must first notice specific features about that artwork, interpret what these choices mean for the whole piece and what the artist must have been trying to say through them, then ask further questions to extend the discussion. Students confirm and build on one another’s observations, answer each other’s questions with reasoned responses, and more often than not, come very close to the artist’s intentions. I taught this course face-to-face, and so would moderate an actual discussion in this activity, and let me say, the discussions can really hum! So much meaning can be made in a short time, and the students feel their ownership of that meaning.

Students are also tacitly working many of the ELA anchor standards in this initial looking at images: “analyzing the impact” of the artist’s choices, citing “strong and thorough textual evidence” to support their observations, and coming to a nuanced understanding of an image’s ambiguity. The artist’s choices become even clearer when positioned next to a contrasting work of art. Because the two pieces have been chosen so that there are meaningful similarities and significant departures between them, the student can see each work more clearly as a series of choices when so compared.

Afterwards, students engage in a short but intensive reading period, which gives context: historical context (primary and secondary resources), and personal context if the artist is still living. Links also give access to materials, which explain key terms or movements. After reading each piece, we would discuss the reading’s key ideas, explicitly connecting them to what we’d said in our previous discussion so that they could see how their initial observations and ideas were confirmed, complicated, and ultimately refined through research.
All of this work happens within the frame of an essential question of the unit, for example: “What does a portrait represent?” And within the even larger theme of the entire course, which - in the case of Art Appreciation – was the theme of American Identity. Students slowly unpacked this theme in relation to the history of art as well as to themselves throughout the semester. One of the final activities in each unit of Art Appreciation was to write a “discussion post” which synthesized all of these elements: their observation and analysis of each work, supported by their outside research, in light of the course’s theme. I received some of the strongest writing from students in these discussion posts.

What happens in these courses with works of art can easily be mapped onto work with a literary text. In fact, I think there is a natural bridge between the elements and principles of art and the different components of rhetoric, and as students become confident in the former, they’re more easily able to recognize the latter. I can envision teaching units of Art Appreciation alongside units in American literature, demonstrating how artists and writers – working under the same historical conditions – made similar choices or evoked similar moods in their work. As a teacher of creative writing, I also made use of projects in Art + Process as companions to writing assignments.

I’d like to leave you with an example of a student’s work from Art Appreciation to demonstrate the type of sophisticated thinking and writing that comes out of these courses. The prompt included three definitions of identity and asked the student to “think about the portraits of the two women in this session,” Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter and Wayne Thiebaud’s Supine Woman, and then answer the following question: “Which of these definitions best describes how the portraits convey identity and why?” Here is his response:

There are many definitions of identity, ranging from how you view yourself and your relationships with others to what groups you align yourself with. Rosie the Riveter shows that Norman Rockwell, at least in part, aligns himself with the concept of identity that asserts personal identity is closely linked to one’s national identity and the cultural symbols one identifies with. We can see this in nearly every facet of this 1943 piece. For instance, Rosie crushing Hitler’s book Mein Kampf is an obvious symbol for the pride Americans felt fighting against the Nazis and their allies in WWll. Then there is the more subtle patriotism conveyed through the often overlooked halo -- a symbol which referenced how during the war working women in America “were seen as ‘angels’ because of the equipment and machinery they produced.” This holiness derived from the invaluable work these women did is further emphasized by how Rosie’s pose is “directly inspired by Michelangelo’s ‘Isaiah’ in the Sistine Chapel.” Isaiah was a prophet who proclaimed that “evildoers” -- much like the Nazis the US was fighting at the time -- would be trampled underfoot. With this combination of symbols that were likely themselves pieces of Rockwell's identity, Rockwell created a piece that resonated strongly with enough people to become a symbol of our collective national identity in its own right while at the same time giving us a glimpse into his psyche.

Wayne Thiebaud’s painting, Supine Woman, hints at the creator having a totally different formulation of identity. This piece, like all of Thiebaud’s work gives me a sense that his identity is based on how he relates to others. This sense is conveyed by Thiebaud’s awareness of how powerful perspective can be in a painting. For instance, Supine Woman is painted at an odd angle, which is not towering above or laying beside the woman in the painting, but instead one gets the sense that you are squatting down at a safe distance to examine her. To reinforce this examiner’s view, the woman in the painting is set in a position that projects both vulnerability and tension with legs spread, eyes wide, and fists nearly clenched. This painting “is similar in form, color, and composition to the baked goods and other confections” that Thiebaud became known for, but when a human is put into a similar context as a cake the end result is disturbing as opposed to appetizing. This attention to how perspective, context, and subject coalesce to form a viewer’s experience of a piece reflects how Thiebaud likely created his identity based on how he perceived himself and his relationships with others.

Anne Wenzel teaches Creative Writing and Arts Appreciation at Arkansas Arts Academy. She was the 2015 Reese Fellow for Crystal Bridges, where she created a curriculum for Creative Writing which explores the role of the mind in shaping perception and incorporates the work of American artists Joseph Cornell, Josef Albers, John Cage, Robert Irwin and James Turrell in addition to many others. Anne holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins University in Science Writing and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College.