At the beginning of each school year, I meet with each of my upper elementary classes for an abbreviated lesson that focuses on unity and variety. Each student contributes a piece that will be included in a larger work of art that speaks to the uniqueness of each of our students and to the collective unity that is present in our school community.
My students and I started one year off by looking at the work of Lea Anderson, an artist and educator who graduated from our own San Diego State University, and has worked in Albuquerque, N.M., for the past 14 years.
Her work is a great example of unity and variety in art. I love the way she plays with natural shapes and how she incorporates patterns in these shapes. The shapes and arrangements of them speak to me both on macro and micro levels in terms of science and the physical world. Lea’s process and finished pieces connect so well with various elements of STEAM curriculum. There is a strong sense of connectedness in her individual pieces, and her larger body of work too, that resonates with me as well.
I showed the students a photo from her “Imitation Organics” series and had them identify how Lea created unity and variety. Then I asked them to draw and cut out a circle or an oval from the paper that was at their table. They were to create at least two patterns that demonstrated radial symmetry on it with the color sticks and markers.
What the patterns were, and how they were arranged were entirely up to the individual student, as long as they revolved around a central point. If students finished their circular shape early, they could create another smaller one. These “extras” come in quite handy when building the collective arrangements later.
Each day of this project, students worked with a different set of analogous colors: r/y/o, b/g/y, and r/v/b. As students finished up their pieces, they came up to the front of the room to assemble them, starting in a center and radiating out until the overall shape was large enough. The smaller extras were used to fill in gaps created when larger shapes were placed near one another.
As we put the pieces together on the floor in the front of the room to get an idea of what the installation would look like, I soon realized there wasn’t nearly enough room for all the large circles. We had six of them that are about 4 feet in diameter each, plus a couple more smaller, collective circle shapes.
The following week I had students come down during my additional class size reduction times to assemble and glue these shapes onto large sheets of white butcher paper that had 4-foot circles drawn on them. Once all the pieces were glued, we assembled them on the back wall of the auditorium to create a wonderful display of unity and variety. It was quite fun to work with students and listen to the conversations that took place in terms of positioning the large shapes when considering their color schemes and sizes.
When my students do these opening collaborations they understand that they are “letting go” of their individual piece or pieces. They do not get broken apart and returned to them. That is something that you could choose to emphasize with your students, or you could have them put names on the back of each small piece and attach them to a wall directly, whether it’s by using loops of tape or pinning them directly to a wall.
Again, one aspect that is unique to using the work of living artists to inspire your students is that your students can receive feedback and encouragement from these very artists. When we shared our collaborative with Lea she reiterated her belief in how things in this world are related:
“I believe the harmony/variety factor is due as much to the laws of nature as it is personal creativity. It’s fascinating to me how things can be completely unique, but be interrelated at the same time. Actually an echo of EVERYTHING … ”
Elementary students will …
• demonstrate an understanding of radial symmetry while creating a design that is based on their own personal interests.
• respect the views of others as they create a collaborative work of art.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Create personally satisfying work using a variety of artistic processes and materials. Collaboratively set goals and create artwork that is meaningful and has purpose to the makers.
• Variety of colored construction paper
• Pencils, markers, Crayola® color sticks
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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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