It is important for art teachers to introduce their students to art from a diverse range of artists from throughout history, as well as artists who are living and working today. Contemporary artist Shinique Smith is an excellent example of a successful female artist who is working in interesting and unique ways.
Smith creates in a variety of forms, including installation, painting, collage, murals, sculptural bundles and performance. She explores personal mythologies and memories tied up in discarded objects and clothes.
She mixes other people’s cloth with her own personal experiences and ties it all together with large sweeping gestural lines, ribbon or rope. She is influenced by graffiti, Eastern calligraphy, youth experiences, fashion, pattern, what we produce as human beings, and abstraction.
Walking through an exhibit of her artwork is a fascinating experience. Bundled and wrapped installations remind us of the consumerist nature of our society and how quickly we are to discard clothing and other things. The clothes themselves hold their own stories, mystery, wonder and history. She is able to make something beautiful out of used, discarded objects.
I BEGAN this mixed-media art unit by showing students two short videos about Shinique Smith’s artwork, which I found online. Sometimes the meanings of contemporary art can be confusing to kids, but she is able to clearly explain her artwork in ways children can understand.
At one point in the video, she described one of her abstract mixed-media paintings as a kind of self-portrait. My students understood the definition of a self-portrait as being a picture of the artist’s face, so some chuckled and expressed disbelief.
We stopped the video and talked about why she may have called this artwork a self-portrait. One of the students theorized that she used some of her own clothing. Others suggested that she used colors and patterns that she liked. In the video, she said her painting was like a self-portrait because she could very much see her hand coming out of it and it being things that describe her.
My students used elements of gestural, bold lines and discarded fabrics to create these beautiful abstract artworks. Students had the option to collaborate with others or work on their own. They started by painting with black acrylic paint on poster boards.
We talked about keeping our arms loose and making sweeping or swirling lines to divide the space. Letters or words could also be incorporated into the design.
After the lines dried overnight, the students chose colors of tempera and acrylic to paint within the spaces. Boxes of donated fabrics from families were available for the children to sort through.
Students who worked with partners needed to discuss and agree upon color schemes, designs, fabric choices and composition, while students who worked alone were able to independently plan and create their own designs meaningful to them.
It was interesting how students approached this project. Some pairs divided up the tasks so one student painted while the other found and cut out fabric pieces. Other pairs worked together and came to agreements about all aspects of the process.
How they used the fabric in their artwork was also varied and unique. A few students rolled up and twisted fabric to create three-dimensional flower-like rolls. Others cut out fabric scraps and quickly pasted down pieces in random places.
Some of the fabric shapes were deliberately and carefully cut to fit within the painted black shapes. Others used fringed pieces or fabric crumpled into little balls. The fabric pieces were glued with regular white glue or glue sticks.
One group included their love of sports in their collage by creating a soccer ball and basketball from fabric and markers. Other students wrote words that were meaningful to them, such as their name, “California dream” and “el amor.”
This unit can be taken in many directions. Personal artist statements could be written to explain their choices of colors, fabrics and imagery. Students can be tasked with bringing in fabric and their own old clothes from home to use in their artwork. Other collage elements such as product packaging of favorite items, candy wrappers or old greeting cards can be brought into the mixed-media paintings.
This project could be tied to the study of reusing and recycling. as well as Earth Day. Sculptures or hanging mobiles could be made by wrapping bundles of fabric like Shinique Smith creates.
Encourage your students to come up with their own ideas after being inspired by this contemporary artist.
Elementary students will …
• learn about a contemporary artist and discuss the artist’s influences, motivations and techniques.
• use paint and fabric to create an abstract mixed media artwork.
• use texture, color, patterns and line to communicate ideas.
• arrange artistic elements to create a balanced composition.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
• Poster board or thick paper
• Tempera or acrylic paints
• Fabric scraps
• Glue sticks and liquid school glue
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Marcia Beckett is a K–6 art teacher at EAGLE School of Madison, Wisconsin. Visit her website: artisbasic.com.
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