Storytellers are treasured in many cultures. In fact, in many, storytelling is the traditional way to initiate the young in the beliefs and experiences of the elders. Storytellers have a flair, a cadence and intonation that grabs the interest and imagination of others, weaving with words the images of the past or predictions of the future.
Perhaps the premier “visual” storyteller of our time was illustrator Norman Rockwell. His art provides the perfect examples for my beginning art students, not just because he illustrated hundreds of covers for the celebrated Saturday Evening Post, but because he forever captured moments in time. Rockwell’s paintings tell the stories of moments cherished, treasured or denied–universal experiences that live on regardless of the age of the viewer or the situation.
There are hundreds of poignant, funny and heart-wrenching images that Rockwell painted with seeming ease. His attention to detail and the facial expressions he rendered within his paintings cause us to reminisce and to share, once again, the universal emotions expressed in his tableaux.
In a class comprised mostly of freshmen, my beginning art students must complete a sculpture unit within our art introduction course. This year I decided that they would become storytellers, conveying their stories not in words or paint, but in clay. I showed them some of Rockwell’s paintings, and we discussed how his artistic skill and sensitivity expressed the clarity of the moments portrayed.
We noted that some paintings depict historical stories–like man’s first steps on the moon, the Four Freedoms, and a little black girl with doll in hand, standing next to a moving van, unsure of her welcome in her new neighborhood. These images, and myriad others, use emotion to convey their powerful images. (For examples of Rockwell’s work, see “Learning from Exhibitions: Normal Rock well … Pictures for the American People,” June. Summer 2000 issue.)
After discussing Rockwell’s paintings, the students needed to decide upon the stories that their art would tell. I had written up a quick list of memorable mental pictures from my own life and those of my children: a baby in a bathtub; a picnic; trying to bathe the family dog; and a child discovering a toy. We brain stormed a bit, then did some quick thumbnail sketches of our ideas.
I try to teach the kids at least one new vocabulary word during our projects. We had previously discussed “bas-relief,” “assemblage” and other vocabulary unique to the area of sculpture. In this unit the word would be “tableau,” an important term that applies to other artistic disciplines as well.
Once their sketched plans were approved, the students each cut their own softball-sized piece of clay. I demonstrated the two basic techniques used with a plastic medium: additive and subtractive–although additive was the most comfortable and logical to use for this project.
We started with a slab, which would serve as the base. The scenes were then constructed upon the base. Texture was very important to our clay “stories”; if the figures were sitting in the grass, it should look like grass. One young man created a delightful “clubhouse,” warped boards and all. Another depicted a couple sharing popcorn in front of a television. Still another portrays a girl–complete with poodle skirt–charming a soda jerk.
Our little scenes of experiences, created in clay and lovingly painted with acrylics, would have pleased Norman Rockwell himself. Without words, they faithfully tell stories with amazing, heartfelt details. They are whimsical, playful and acutely observant. Fine work indeed for a group so young at art.
Geri Greenman is head of the art department at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Illinois, and is a Contributing Editor for Arts & Activities.
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