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Telling Stories Visually | Arts & Activities
Oct 2015

Telling Stories Visually

Telling Stories Visually

“Beyond Words,” by Cooper Cavanaugh (grade 12).

The Living History Veteran’s Project is a great opportunity for authentic learning experiences, and is a worthwhile project for everyone involved—teachers, students and veterans. It has been so successful, we are now in our fourth year.

As an artist, teacher, and veteran myself, I look for ways we can welcome local veterans to our school. As a photographer and an art teacher, my colleague Harry Quiroga is interested in using photography to tell a story. Together, we found a unique way for our students to meet, interview, photograph, and honor a group of local veterans. In the process, students learned valuable lessons about the historical, social and emotional aspects of the veterans’ lives, and shared what they learned through art.


“Time Heals Most Wounds,” by Kevin Williamson (grade 11).

We arranged two days, two weeks apart, for local veterans to visit. On the first day, groups of two or three students worked with a veteran, who shared with them their stories, photographs and military memorabilia (medals, personal photos, letters from loved ones, patches, etc.), and how their military experience shaped their lives. Each student gleaned his or her own perspective from the experience.

The afternoon was spent further interviewing the veterans (collecting correct information and details was a key part of the project), sketching, brainstorming and collaborating with the veterans about how to tell each veteran’s unique story in art or video. Portraits were taken of the visitors, with lighting and poses that best captured the mood students wanted to create. Memorabilia was carefully arranged into still lifes and photographed, and some of it was scanned.


For “Purple Heart Pride,” Tyler (grade 11) photographed a portrait of Vietnam veteran Gene Lang. Then, using Adobe Photoshop, Tyler arranged the portrait, scanned photos and a map for his final montage.


Gabriel (grade 10) thoughtfully used studio lighting on Rob Somerville’s medals and dog tags for his piece, “Still Serving.” He chose to take his own photos using a more dramatic lighting effect to enhance the meaning.


For “Tough Climb,” Aaron (grade 12) used scanned photos for reference and made several drawings using a storyboard technique. After several rough drafts, he achieved the final composition for his oil painting on canvas.

Our students then had the next two weeks to create their artistic work. The painting and drawing students printed their photos to use as reference to work from, while the graphic design and photography students saved their images to manipulate, using Adobe Bridge, Photoshop and Illustrator. Students who chose to create a short film or documentary used D-SLR cameras, then created their films using Adobe Premiere Pro video editing software.

The student work was outstanding. For Tough Climb, Aaron Austin chose to create an oil painting on canvas. For him, getting the correct proportions was key and he used scanned photos as reference. To convey the hardships endured by a WWII Army 10th Mountain Division veteran, he made several drawings using a storyboard technique. After several rough drafts, and some discussion, he was able to create his final piece.

For Purple Heart Pride, Tyler Trap decided to create a photomontage. He used studio lighting to help show off the pride of Vietnam veteran Gene Lang, and also scanned in some old photos and used Adobe Photoshop to put them all together. The placement of the font and the placement of each image were deliberate and important for Tyler.

Gabriel Lucero did an amazing job using the studio lights for his piece, Still Serving. He decided to have his photos focus on objects, such as Rob Somerville’s medals and dog tags. Instead of scanning the images, he decided to take his own photos using a more dramatic lighting effect to enhance the meaning.


Tyler presents his painting to veteran Gene Lang.

Two weeks passed, and it was time for students to present the veterans with their personalized artworks. We invited the students’ parents, the veterans’ families, and our administration and board of education to the hour-and-a-half presentation. It was quite emotional as each student presented his or her artwork to the veteran. They spoke about what they gained from the experience, how they created their artwork, and the difficulties and challenges they may have had in the process. The students also shared how it affected them emotionally. Words cannot express the gratitude emanating from the veterans during this presentation.

Because this was such an incredible opportunity to work with local veterans, the entire school district became involved. Staff members and administration helped to provide the lunch, and came to join in the learning experience. Our entire art department was involved and helped to select the students who would participate.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to come from this project was that all of us can use our talents to encourage, help and support others.


GETTING STARTED: How did we get local veterans to work with us? To get things rolling, we emailed all of the teachers and administrators in our district, many of whom have family members who are veterans. Another amazing resource is your local American Legion and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars). Do not be discouraged­—getting started is the hardest part. Once you do, the veterans will start inviting their friends to be a part of this great opportunity, and interest in participating will grow. This project is suitable for elementary through high school. If you would like information on how to adapt this project for your own school or classroom, contact Ron Whitehead and Harry Quiroga at [email protected]

A veteran of the Gulf War, Ron Whitehead teaches photography and art at Ossining High School in Ossining, N.Y.

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