I recently introduced the work of Odili Donald Odita to my second- and fifth-graders. Odili was born in Nigeria, moved to the U.S. with his family when he was a young boy, and now is a very successful painter and college professor at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia (where I studied as a young man, many moons ago).
Odili works in an abstract style that relies on sharp angles, crisp edges and vibrant colors. His color choices are inspired by local and global experiences he has had over the course of his life. Through his use of pattern and composition Odili also explores aspects of the human condition in his large-scale paintings and murals.
I started both lessons by sharing photos of Odili’s abstractions as well as a couple short videos of mural installations he has done, so students could see some of his technique and hear him speak directly about his creative process. The students really enjoyed this aspect of the project introduction because they could identify with him more directly.
With both groups, we looked at his use of masking tape to keep edges well defined and clean, so students could connect the use of a crayon resist watercolor technique with Odili’s work later on in the project. We also noticed how he made preliminary plans before starting on large-scale wall works.
After introducing Odili and his work to the second-graders, I asked them to make two sketches—one vertical, one horizontal. I wanted them to focus on creating with angular shapes. Earlier in the year, they used a lot of curved shapes to create a drawing inspired by the work of Santos Orellana (see Local Love, Jan. 2017 issue). They were required to use zigzag lines, at least one diagonal pattern, and a number of diamonds. The composition of those elements was up to the students.
Once their sketches were done, they selected the one that would make a more interesting painting. As always, I encouraged them to think about why they were choosing one over the other, and to share their reasoning with a neighbor. When their choice was made, they drew out their sketch on a larger piece of watercolor paper. With this step, I reminded them that it’s okay if their final design looks a little different than their original sketch. If they wanted to add more detail to larger shapes they could.
They then selected three colored crayons to use and colored about half their image. The color choices were up to them—primaries, secondaries, warms, cools, personal faves, or colors that had certain meanings to them. Students completed the project by adding watercolors to the remaining white shapes. They could add more or less water to their colors to make their colors lighter or darker.
While the second-graders focused on creating an image inspired by Odili’s visual vocabulary of angled shapes, the fifths were tasked with an additional aspect on a symbolic level. After being introduced to Odili’s work, students were asked to come up with at least two personal symbols and at least two symbols that represented our Zamorano school community.
After brainstorming, I asked them to modify those so that the symbols were created with primarily straight lines and a variety of angles—obtuse, acute, and right, to connect visually to Odili’s style. They then combined a personal and a school symbol to create a composition that had at least three sections. Students could rotate and flip the symbols to create a design that had symmetry or asymmetry. If students were working with small or thin symbols, they could add repeated border lines to activate the negative spaces in their designs.
During this process I worked my way around the classroom, asking individual kids how their symbols stood for them and school. It was quite interesting to listen to their reasoning. It also gave me more insight into the things that were important to kids that I did not know previously.
Upon completing their sketches, students selected the more interesting composition, explained their reasoning in writing and shared their thoughts with a neighbor.
They then translated their chosen designs to 6″ x 18″ sheets of watercolor paper, drew out their images lightly in pencil, and used up to four crayon colors to fill about half of the paper. Color choices and the reasons for those choices were, like the second-graders, up to the individual students. They completed their compositions by filling in the remaining white shapes with watercolors.
To wrap it up, the fifths completed an exit slip that had them explaining the meaning of their chosen symbols and how the crayon resist technique was similar to the masking tape method they saw in action in one of the observed videos.
One of the things I really liked about these two projects was the amount of visual variety present in so many of the student creations. Even with a firm set of parameters—like primarily using angles throughout the design—the kids approached the picture plane in unique ways.
Also, I feel that working in an abstract style while experimenting with a technique such as crayon resist for the first time, allows kids of all skill levels to be more relaxed and less afraid of failure. There is a freedom in abstraction that is not present in representational work for a lot of people, including children.
Introducing students to abstraction and experimenting with it at a young age also develops a sense in them that there is hard work and critical decision making involved in creating a successful abstract composition. It can shatter the stereotype of “if it’s abstract anyone can do it” for future generations.
Elementary students will …
• explain creative decision making to another student.
• experiment with crayon-resist watercolor techniques.
• create artwork inspired by different elements of their personal experiences.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Discuss and reflect with peers about choices made in creating artwork (grade 2).
• Creating: Combine ideas to generate an innovative idea for art-making (grade 5).
• Creating: Identify, describe, and visually document places and/or objects of personal significance.
• Sketch paper, watercolor paper
• Pencils, erasers, crayons
• Watercolors, paintbrushes
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Arts & Activities Contributing Editor, Don Masse, is a K–5 visual arts teacher at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy in San Diego, California.
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