Art as Inspiration for English Classroom



The girls checking out some contemporary art.


Jennifer Anderson’s “Resolute Understanding of Fragile Things”. A mural representing the relationship between natural and man-made things.


Ralph Eaton’s “Fuzzy Kudzu” exhibit utilizing recycled discarded stuffed animals from Goodwill to create an amorphic sculpture that changes perspective depending on light.


I spent yesterday roaming the halls of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia. The impressive structure literally creates its own skyline of glass, metal and concrete. It is maybe the most interesting building I have seen. My daughter has been asking me recently to take her and yesterday was the day. We are an art family. My undergrad was a double major of Art History and English Literature. I have always been drawn to galleries and performance exhibitions like a moth to a flame. I think I infected my children with this obsession as well. Art seems to always put life in perspective for me and yesterday was no different. Stress about the impending school year and my book manuscript currently with an editor has been overwhelming recently, but yesterday I got lost in the charcoal, oil and mixed media of the exhibits. Often I try to bring my love and respect for art into my high school classroom to inspire students to create for themselves. Artists, like poets, see the world differently and tend to speak a truth about our society that is not often voiced. Bill Rutherford is one of the artists on exhibit at the Taubman currently and his pieces “question the ‘official histories’ of art, nation, and region. His paintings highlight issues such as the environment and human exploitation to studies of personal identity while also depicting wide ranging, even international notions of regionalism, cultural reclamation, and artistic integrity.” His images utilized familiar fable creatures as a storytelling mechanism. I liked the way he challenged my daughter and her friend to think about our society. Our discussions as we moved through his gallery are what I hope for in my own classroom.


The next gallery we entered held my favorite piece of the day. It is a mixture of media and greatly relies on words to convey the artist’s message, but not complete sentences, just strategically placed words that make you think. I could see this exhibit getting my students talking about tone and author’s purpose. Each piece combined items you might throw away or not notice and brought them to the front for study. Johnson’s ” intense and energetically charged pieces, created in both two and three dimensions, combine recycled found objects and shapes, densely woven patterns, text, and language games that improvise visual puns. They tempt the eye and the ear of the viewer to enter Johnson’s universe of pure free association. Johnson weaves words and patterns together in a compulsive manner that expresses a genuine kinship with outsider artists; yet his sophisticated approach to materials provides an often ironic and deliberate strategy that comments on the nuances of our consumer driven culture, injected with a dash of sly humor. ” My daughter is a budding scientist and she was fascinated by Johnson’s piece “A Statement on Metaphysics.” She spoke of the way he challenged her to think about the patterns he created and how they related to the study of metaphysics.

IMG_0777   My favorite piece used various words to inspire thinking about how unlike things can be fused together to bring a larger message. It was not necessarily the most visually stunning piece I saw, but it made me stop and take notice. I like that. From this gallery we wandered into the room with pieces from more widely known artists like Picasso, Cezanne and Degas. I have always been fascinated with Pointillism and Seurat’s work and there happened to be a piece of his earlier work done with black crayon in the collection. I drew my daughter and her friend to that piece and explained the style. They marveled at the patience and attention to detail it must have taken for Seurat to compose a rendering of a horse using just pinpoints of crayon mark. I was able to bring some background knowledge to their appreciation of the art they were seeing. It showed how important context can be- especially for an abstract idea or concept.

Probably the best part of the visit though was downstairs in the creation classroom. In it you can find materials to make your own art pieces. My daughter and her friend sat down at a sculpture station and began constructing mixed media sculptures out of the materials. I wandered around as they worked and found myself in front of a 3D printer. I have been curious about these machines since we got one in our school last year. I have tried to imagine how it could be utilized in a high school English curriculum, but so far had come up dry. Beside the machine were some objects people  created with it- a frog, an octopus and an Egyptian pyramid. Such an amazing idea that you can load a plan into the machine and it builds the object right in front of you, layer by layer. I made a note in my phone to research 3D printing for education when I got home.

Our last stop was the gift shop. I am a sucker for museum gift shops. Lots of cool artsy stuff you can take home with you. As I made my way to the back of the store, my eye caught a display of candles surrounded by carafes of wine corks. I had not seen anything like that in the museum so I meandered over to check it out. The display was candles made out of recycled wine bottles cut in half. A restaurateur noticed he was piling up empty wine bottles each night and had an idea that he could reuse those bottle to make wine-scented candles. He took something in his environment that he was going to throw away and found a new use for it. I love the idea and it immediately made me think of how I could do something like this with my students. Could they find objects that no longer had use around their house and re-purpose them into something marketable?  There is the added bonus of research opportunities and creating a persuasive ad campaign….I am not sure if it is practical, but it is something I will be thinking about along with 3D printing, background knowledge opportunities and unique ways to take a stand for ideas you believe in.  IMG_0784


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