Monday, October 31, 2011

Capturing Impressionable Minds

"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see"

I used to think history was a bore. I hated history. My flighty, day-dreaming, cluttered mind would only slow down long enough to be captured by something historical if I could relate to it in my daily life.

I am still adapting to the lack of moans and groans in response when I introduce my course outline to a new group with the disclaimer that we don't just make art here. We learn about art. We talk about art. We look at art. We make connections to other subjects. We read. We brainstorm. We discuss history. They're used to me now, and know that I have high expectations and mean business; they are more accepting of my teaching style. It wasn't always that easy, but now I can reap the rewards of having seen my 3 year curriculum plan through almost to completion. For the first time in my teaching history, this week a half period art history lesson because a 3 period lesson.

Impressionists captured the overall impression of a scene and communicated through the use of vibrant colors. Kids can't fathom a world where you can't snap a photo of a moment in time as it happens and upload it instantly to Facebook for the world to see.

Why? I think maybe we stumbled upon something that stuck. I have always covered Impressionism and Post Impressionism briefly with my 6th graders. I've always loved the use of color in these paintings and thought it was a great way to introduce parts of a landscape, watercolor techniques, basic color mixing, texture... all that stuff I want to cram into a 25 day course when I still want to have time for drawing and sculpture. With each new rotation (I am now on my 16th rotation of 6th grade art), the spiel gets longer. The first one took 5 minutes. This rotation it took 3 days. I'll admit I never delved very deeply into the art of Monet or Van Gogh prior to teaching art. I knew who these men were, of course; I have had a print of Starry Night on my bedroom wall since I was 15. I've received a few Monet calendars as Christmas presents over the years. I had stood in awe before the magnificence of their paintings in museums before, but even after 7 semesters of college art history, well history has gone on for so long, there isn't time to get into all of it. And I don't even like history. I hated history. I never did well in history, which made my life as a college student very difficult in my art history classes. Add that to my ignorance of basic religion (I can blame my parents for that), and I was far too lost trying to figure out who on earth these Mary and Joseph people were that my professor kept talking about to really grasp the breadth of what was being taught. I studied, I memorized, I made stuff up when necessary, and then I moved it along through my conscious mind to make space for an onslaught of new information.

With each new unit I teach, no matter how many times I have taught it, I do a little refresher background research. So I have read up on Monet and Van Gogh over the years, and added more to my knowledge to share with students. When I get to the painting of Starry Night, right as rain, each time one kid will yell out "the guy who cut off his ear! Didn't he go nutzo and kill himself?" Each time, I would nod, dismiss the comment, and focus on the art. Focus on the colors. Each new rotation would have the same kid, usually with two legs of his chair 6 inches above the ground, chewing on a pen cap, scribbling on my desks, would chime in at the same point in my Powerpoint presentation with the same comment. Usually this kid would be one who I was surprised to see had been listening. Still, I dismissed the ear cutting/nut house/suicide/bloody mess comments every time. Well, when you know better, you do better. Why would I disregard the comments of a kid who I didn't even know was paying attention in the first place? Why wouldn't I ask myself "how did I inadvertently pique this kid's interest? How can I keep it?"
When I look at the texture of the brushstrokes in this painting, I always think about how it feels when your worries and emotions are all tangled up and rolling around in your stomach. This is how I imagine it would look if all that tumultuous surge of emotion were let go into the night sky. What if we all found a way to let that all out, the way Van Gogh did?
 Thank you, 60 minutes, for hitting me over the head with a proverbial sledgehammer. You are older and wiser than I, and I should have listened sooner. 60 minutes did a piece 2 weeks ago about the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, bringing to light new research regarding the circumstances of Vincent's untimely and tragic death. The images of the paintings were amazing, the views of the French countryside breathtaking, the ending sad, yet memorable. Ironically, I heard of this segment just a few days before I was going to run through my Post Impressionist spiel. This group knew more about the artists than any prior group. They couldn't contain their excitement to share with me their thoughts and observations about each new painting we looked at. Like clockwork, a kid who I actually refer to by the nickname "Michaelwith4legsofthechaironthegroundplease" shouts out "the nutzo guy who killed himself!!!" To which I replied, "that's funny, I heard somewhere that there was something on TV disputing that fact." They wanted to watch it. They wanted to know all about it. I told them we were going to paint the next day, and that this would take away from painting time. They didn't mind a bit. I read the transcript online, to make sure everything was appropriate to show. I worried that the monotonous voice of Morley Safer would leave them all snoring. I went for it anyway. We paused halfway through, and they were still on the edge of their seats. Several students told me they had watched it at home and "It was more powerful here without the commercial breaks". Many of them inched their seats closer to the big screen to get a better look. At the end, several students who had already seen the video told me how much more powerful it was to have seen it a second time.

60 minutes didn't just show the artwork, they showed photos of Vincent. We now had a face to connect all of this work to. We heard about his life. We heard about the way he was treated. We heard about how he failed at everything, yet didn't stop painting. We heard about all of his failures. We heard of his attempts to help himself. We heard that he wasn't just "crazy"; he had a medical diagnosis and was not well. We heard about his struggles. We saw the places that mattered to him and how he had depicted them, exaggerating and altering shape and color and form to express the anguish that he could do little else with. We saw the faces of the people who had put him down, disowned him, played cruel tricks on him, tormented him, possibly murdered him. We heard about how he used art and painting to find an outlet for this pain; how badly he wanted friends, but couldn't find any.

While my students saw all of these things and more unfolding on the screen, I saw 20 faces who had just recognized the face of someone who understood them, even if this person had died over 120 years ago. Who didn't experience at least one day of middle school either feeling the disapointment of failure, the loneliness of not having friends, the fear of being a disapointment to your family, or the cruelness of other kids who took their own insecurities out on you in the form of teasing and harrassment? Many kids feel this way every day. Most of these kids have no idea that not only have other people felt this way, but have eventually thrived and had an opportunity to shine later. In contrast, many of the kids who are doing the teasing, the harrassing, and the torturing, don't see the impact their behavior has on the target when he or she is alone. They don't fully comprehend the power of their words and actions or the pain they inflict.

Vincent died, of course, but he wasn't in pain anymore. He hadn't wanted to struggle. His legacy was able to live on through his paintings and be a source of comfort and inspiration to generations. Now, years later, we as a society are older and wiser and recognize his genius for what it was. In today's age of bullying, so many people comment that the world wasn't this way when they were growing up. It was in the late 19th century, and I don't know of anyone who was alive then. While Vincent Van Gogh might not be the number one role model for the new generation of art students to emulate, his message was a positive one: He never gave up. When life got harder, he worked harder. When he had no friends, he created them. When he could not communicate how he felt with words, he found a way to do so with color. He didn't bottle it all up inside and take it out on someone else. He confronted it. He looked for help. He made peace with himself and the world before he left it, and he left the world a more beautiful place than he had found it. Aren't those lessons sometimes the most important of all?

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