ART HISTORY: BRINGING ART ALIVE WITH "LIVING PAINTINGS"
by Nancy Walkup, W. S. Ryan Elementary, Denton Independent School District, Denton, Texas.
Under the direction of art specialist Rhonda Sherrill, students at Sam Houston Elementary in Denton, Texas, have been bringing art to life through the production and presentation of "living paintings." More than just a tableau, each work of art represented is a dramatic and interpretive presentation, including student-constructed props, painted backdrops, costumes, written scripts, spoken parts, music, and usually movement and dance. Such presentations may focus on historical works of art (art history), interpretations of contemporary works (art criticism), or both.
Sherrill, an exemplary art teacher in Denton, Texas, has developed highly effective, collaborative strategies for living paintings with the music and classroom teachers from her school. Each year she chooses a specific grade level and works with all the classes and teachers at that level to produce a program for Sam Houston Elementary's Parent Teacher Association. The program highlights three to five paintings or other kinds of works of art, depending on the number of classes at that grade level. Each class develops a presentation on a different work of art, with the works chosen by Sherrill to focus on a particular theme or to provide diverse images from a number of cultures.
Sherrill works closely with each of the classroom teachers involved, directing students in researching the chosen works of art, the artist, and/or the culture that produced the work. Depending on the specific work, students write artist biographies, art historical accounts, and scripts, and design and paint props and backdrops. They plan the dramatic presentations, learn and rehearse their parts, choreograph body movements and dance, and work with the music teacher to coordinate appropriate music. Students are also given other assignments as stage hands to control the lights, music, and scenery changes during the presentations. Every student in every class in the grade level addressed participates in the living paintings.
"Living painting" artist Alexa Meade paints one of her subjects.
On the night of the PTA presentation, the entire program is devoted to the living paintings. Since an entire grade level of the school is involved, there is always a packed, eager audience of parents, siblings, other relatives, and teachers.
The specific form each living painting takes is determined by the nature of the specific work, but most begin with an introduction of the featured work of art. The image is shown to the audience as a print reproduction or through a projected slide, then the curtain opens on the stage setting and the program begins.
Individual living paintings may begin with spoken dialogue, sometimes comments from the artist, or an interview of the artist by a reporter or art historian. Students dressed in costume move on stage accompanied by music to dramatize or reenact the work of art, usually ending in a frozen tableau.
The knowledge and understanding that students have acquired through the collaborative preparation of their "own" living painting is clearly evident in the confident manner of the students on stage. Though many may have cue cards in hand, the students usually know their lines so well that their notes are not needed. The choreography of body movements and dance, the smooth transitions between sets, the responsible attitudes of each student for his or her assigned part all add to the successful and inspiring presentation.
In the four years since Sherrill began these efforts, her students have presented a wide variety of works as living paintings, many of which may at first seem difficult to interpret. For example, one third grade program included Parade, by Jacob Lawrence, Apaquogue, by Adolph Gottlieb, The Sunny Side of the Street, by Philip Evergood, and Cascarones, by Carmen Lomas Garza.
In November of this school year, Sherrill's sixth graders presented The Green Corn Dance, by Tonita Pena, China or the Devil, by Lee Smith III, Granite Weaving, by Jesus Moroles, and Afro-Emblems, by Hale Woodruff.
This successful collaboration is made possible by the willingness of Sherrill and her fellow teachers at Sam Houston Elementary to work together to provide their students with meaningful, interdisciplinary learning experiences. The power of art education to make a genuine difference in students' lives is fully apparent in these "living" works of art.
An Art Teacher's Guide to Developing "Living Paintings"
Present the idea of "living paintings" to the teachers in your school and enlist their cooperation.
Schedule a presentation date for the school's parent/teacher association meeting.
Choose a grade level with which to work.
Choose the specific works that will be featured. These may be chosen to fit a grade level or other theme, or may depict a diversity of cultures.
Collaborate with the appropriate grade level teachers and the music and/or physical education to schedule and conduct research, writing, and rehearsal activities and times.
In the art room, investigate in depth the works that will be featured in the presentation. Work with students to prepare costumes, props, backdrops, and other visual aids as needed.
Collaborate with classroom teachers so that each class has sufficient rehearsal time.
Present the living paintings!
If starting with an entire grade level seems overwhelming, develop living paintings with just your art club or one class.
Try projecting a slide on a large white sheet and have students become players in front of the slide. This has been used with great success with teaching history (See History Alive! Website). Start small. Do a little each year until you are more comfortable. Get the students involved.