Wow! What an incredible experience this project led to!
Last spring, I introduced my third-graders to the work of San Diego abstractionist, Santos Orellana. He is originally from Honduras, moved to New York City to study chemistry, and moved out to San Diego to be a part of the biotech industry. Only then, in San Diego, did he become focused on visual art.
I see a mix of Keith Haring, Joan Miró, and the Mayan glyphs from his native country when I look at his work. To me, there is an unconscious flow and dance of line that is unique to his paintings, murals and furniture designs. You may see other things or connections in it, and this is one of the big ideas I try to get across to my students.
Abstract art lends itself to multiple readings or interpretations, depending on your personal experiences. The cool thing is, all of those reads are valid when you support them with evidence.
My students and I looked at a series of paintings by Santos, entitled “Alfabetismo,” which are camouflaged letters from the alphabet. Santos did this collection of work because he feels that a strong education is one of the most important elements necessary for the success of a child.
While looking at his work, students noticed the bold lines that Santos uses to create contrast from the background of his paintings. They also saw how the painting of the background did not match or “fill in” the shapes created with those lines in the foreground. We discussed how he added lines and patterns to “abstract” the central letter of each painting.
The hands-on portion of the piece got started by experimenting with watercolor techniques for the fields of color in the background. I demonstrated how to use more or less water to create different color values and how to apply wet on wet to make different color mixes. I limited their color choices to cools to reinforce a sense of unity in their backgrounds.
After painting, students set the papers aside and brainstormed things that were important to the success of a child. They shared those ideas with one another and created three sketches using words from the brainstormed list.
I encouraged flipping, rotating, changing between upper and lowercase as they added words to sketches. They added more lines afterwards to break up their compositions further. When they made a decision on which sketch to move forward with, students wrote a sentence explaining their choice.
The next step of the project was to take a black crayon and lightly write their word, draw their lines, directly on their painted paper. They then went back in and made their lines darker and wider.
To wrap things up, students shared their paintings with one another and tried to discover the word in each other’s work. They then partner-shared with someone and explained why they chose that particular word and what the most challenging part of the project was for them. I love these conversations! I float around the room and listen in, ask students to repeat, or to add even more detail to their reflections.
Just before this current school year began, I visited Santos’ gallery for the first time. It was great to see his work in person and to see examples of variety in approach and materials in the work exhibited. And, lo and behold, Santos was in the gallery working.
He came out to see if I had any questions and I told him about this project and gave him some background on our school. Within minutes, he asked me if we had a wall that we would like to have painted. He was willing to donate his time, materials and creative energy in order to enliven our school campus. I was floored … and giddy!
Fast-forward five weeks later and he was on a wall 130 feet long and serves as the backdrop for our regular school-wide openings at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy. A small team of fifth-graders—model citizens and artists—helped him paint the background of the mural. Classes toured the mural, watched Santos work, and interacted with him in Q & A sessions.
Students saw Santos employing some of the same elements their teachers practice with them every day: he had his basic idea, created, stepped back and looked at his work, then revised and added to the mural. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, until the large piece was complete.
That same week, I did a project inspired by his work with my second- graders. We were able to go outside, mid-lesson, and watch him make bold lines with his “triple-line technique.” Then we would come back in class and have a much better idea of how to emphasize lines in our own artwork.
What an experience for our students! This can only happen if you open yourself up to introducing your students to local, living artists. The connection can be so real, so palpable, and it can leave a lasting impression on them for the rest of their lives.
Elementary students will …
• develop an artistic image by brainstorming, sketching, reflecting and sharing, and creating.
• experiment with creating abstract art.
• identify the main idea (the hidden word) in an artwork and share their thoughts about the creative process they went through with the lesson.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Elaborate on an imaginative idea.
• Responding: Determine messages communicated by an image.
• Practice paper, 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper
• Watercolor paint, paintbrushes, water bowls
• Pencils, black crayons or oil pastels
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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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