A Lesson in Art History

art history

The first lesson I learned as a teacher was that you should always come to class prepared.  The second lesson- and just as important as the first- was that no matter how much you prepare, teaching can be ninety-five percent improvisation.  But you should show up prepared anyway.  Because if you don’t, the kids can smell it on you, and they will eat you alive.

When Middle Daughter was in fifth grade, I signed up to teach Art History once a month as a volunteer.  I have a background in teaching, but not in art history.  I love art, and I have somewhat come to like history as an adult… and they needed volunteers. So, why not?

This is my fourth year as a volunteer with our PTA-funded program, and it’s been one of my favorite volunteer jobs.  Sometimes I share the job with another parent in the classroom, sometimes it’s just me.  We (the volunteers for each classroom) attend a once-a-month training workshop, led by someone who does, in fact, actually have a background in art and art history.  And then we take turns sharing the reproductions and prints with our respective classes.

I always do my own research as well before I go into the classroom. Partially because I like to know more about the artwork I’m talking about, but also because I like to be prepared when the kids ask questions.  And they always ask questions.

I think it’s really important for the kids to know if I don’t have the answers though. The process of thinking about the art, the artist, the medium, the technique, or the history behind it, is just as important as any answer I may attempt to give.  Maybe even more important.

I’ve shown them reproductions of “The Wave”, a woodblock print by Japanese artist Hokusai and we’ve talked about perspective:  how Mount Fuji (elevation 12,389 ft), the tallest mountain in Japan, is in the background of the print, apparently dwarfed by the wave in the foreground.

I’ve shown them a print of Jan van Huysum’s “Garden Gaiety”, a Dutch painter whose work is so precise that the rose petals look like they are from a photograph.  We talk about how his technique is exacting, and the still life works are painstakingly staged.

I’ve shared photographs of Michelangelo’s  marble sculpture “Pieta” (1498), and brought in a tape measure to show them the full height of it, sixty-nine inches.  We passed around a block of marble to appreciate the weight of the medium for sculpting, and the unbelievable skill needed to create this work of art.

They are seeing works of art from the Vatican, and museums in London, France, and New York; art they may never have the chance to see in real life.

Art History is teaching the students how different artists see the world;  teaching them that each of us sees the world differently.

We see it differently because of the century we’re born in, our particular time period in history.  We see the world differently because of the country we live in, because of the place we call “home,” because of the people who surround us, because of our religion, if we choose one. Sometimes we even see the world as we see ourselves.

One lesson I taught in Middle Daughter’s fifth grade class highlighted the art of Freda Kahlo.  As soon as I put one of the prints on the easel to display, I heard snickers from the kids.  I talked about the technical aspects of the painting, about her life as an artist, but I was stalling the inevitable.  I knew that someone was going to point out that she had a mustache.

And there it was- a life lesson in the middle of art history.

“Ok everyone,” I said. “First, I want you to notice the dark color of the hair on her head.  Also, did you know that we ALL have hair on our upper lip?” More giggles.  “Don’t believe me? Turn and look at your neighbor.  Look carefully at their upper lip.  Blond hair, brown hair, black hair, all shades in between, we all have tiny hairs that grow on our upper lip.  Now push up your sleeve and look at your forearm…”

It’s entirely possible that I may have horrified half the kids in class that day, probably most of the girls, effectively telling them they all have mustaches.

A lesson for Middle Daughter’s sixth grade class the following year was on the art of Islam. One of the things we constantly talked about in Art History was how religion had a major influence on art and artists. Personally, I grew up going to a Protestant church, my community was largely Catholic, and I think I had one friend who was half Jewish.  I felt wholly unprepared and inadequate to present a lesson on the art of Islam.

So I read.  And I read and I read and I read. And then I read some more. I read from lots of different sources. And I learned.

I learned the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. I learned about mosque architecture and what a minaret is. I learned that while different periods in history saw military struggles, or the rise and fall of dynasties, or peaceable exchange of goods and ideas, the art of both Islam and Christianity reflected this.

I wanted to learn in case one of the students asked me, but as I read, I found I really wanted to educate myself. I wanted to learn another way to see the world.

I wanted to share my excitement about learning something new with the kids.  I told them I didn’t know much about this lesson at first, so I took the time to learn about a different religion and culture, and I was so glad I did.

Art History may be about looking at old dusty works by dead artists- on the surface, maybe. If that is all you choose to see.

But you can choose to see more: that we, as humans, can express how we see the world and feel about it- telling our stories through art, through music, through words and pictures.

We all have a point of view.

We all have a voice.

The more we can appreciate those two things, the more we can teach our kids to appreciate those things. And the world might just be a better place for i

One thought on “A Lesson in Art History

  1. Pingback: The School that We Built | Gretchen L. Mulroy

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