Romare Bearden’s 18’ x 3’ collage entitled “The Block,” on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, was a big hit with art students at MC Riley and Bluffton Elementary Schools in December. Because the original is so big, three posters were needed to show all six panels that comprise the finished work! Each child received a different question to think about as students did some careful looking before class started.
Vickie Must introduced information about the artist, who was born in 1911 in North Carolina and later moved to Harlem during the Great Migration. Students were surprised to learn that Romare Bearden, an African American, could have had a pro baseball career, that he was a social worker, wrote music, studied art in college and night school, and didn’t start doing collages until he was 50 years old. The conversation about art grew out of the questions they were asked to think about initially.
Students observed a jazz group playing on the street, a funeral procession, people leaning out of windows talking to passersby, various storefronts, the unusual scale of some of the objects, and the fact that different times of day were represented in different panels. We discussed similarities and differences between this city environment and local blocks they might identify. Students were eager to participate, well behaved and saw more than expected.
Marilyn Glacken gave a brief demonstration which showed how the artist might have begun constructing his collage using construction paper and local resources donated by The Bluffton Breeze and Island Packet. The students at Bluffton Elementary School were asked to begin making small group collages that could ultimately be placed side by side to create a class version of a “Bluffton Block.” Their teacher, Joann Anderson, let them finish up the project the following day and sent the three separate images below.
In November, Susan Hooker and Mary McKane presented “Daybreak – A Time to Rest” by Jacob Lawrence to elementary students. The painting uses a few secondary colors and abstracted shapes to tell a story about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. The artist’s Migration Series, about the mass movement of thousands of African American families from the rural South to the industrial North, was one of his early successes.
After careful observation, students said they saw three larger figures, a rifle, sand, water, sky, and smaller details, like the baby and insects. Because of the abstraction, the middle figure in the painting was hard to recognize and provoked some “way out,” imaginative answers! Students were unclear about the time of day. However, once they learned who the central figure represented, the title of the painting made sense to them. They knew that Harriet Tubman had helped slaves escape, having studied this earlier in the school year. They were very anxious to share what they knew!
When asked why the feet in the painting appeared so big and had so many lines, students determined it was because of all the walking she did helping the slaves. A volunteer was asked to lie flat on his back on a table. Students then got down low enough so their eyes were level with his feet and explained what they saw. This “worm’s eye view” is the viewpoint Jacob Lawrence used in his composition. Students were extremely well mannered, very enthusiastic and quite knowledgable. They further learned that Harriet Tubman made 19 trips and that the slaves had to go all the way to Canada! There had been a ransom of $40,000 (equal to $1 million today) for her capture. An important historical figure, students were told of the possibility of her picture on the $20 bill, and were reminded of the bridge named for her on Route 170.
Jacob Lawrence developed a simple style using inexpensive materials. He chose a limited color palette and tended to use paints straight from the tube. He was the first African American artist to be exhibited by a big New York gallery.