This exercise builds art-making skills that can prepare students for their own personal artwork at a future date.
In their humanities class,7th 8th grade students examined the U.S. Civil War from Northern and Southern viewpoints before, during, and after the war. In studio, we appropriated and transformed period photos and prints to visualize these viewpoints.
UNPACKING ISSUES ABOUT APPROPRIATION
Students appropriate images all the time in the art room as they copy and collage images from magazines and the internet. This is a huge topic in contemporary art and should be spotlighted and discussed in class from time to time.
Before we appropriated images for this exercise, we looked at artist, Shepard Fairey’s work to develop a deeper understanding about the implications of ownership and fair use. Fairey’s 2008 Obama print (right image) borrows its original image from a photo by Associated Press photographer, Manny Garcia (left image). Conflict and lawsuits between the men are a relevant and engaging case study. We listened to an interview with both men by Terry Gross.
We discussed this controversy. Is it fair to take another person’s art and change it into your art? Do you need to ask permission? Are news photographs art? Does that matter? Is everything on the internet up for grabs? How much do you need to transform another’s image in order for it to be rightfully yours?
We finished our discussion with a chalk talk. This is a non-verbal protocol where students write opinions and write responses to one another’s writing on a large paper on the wall. Afterwards, I moved the chalk talk paper into the hall and invited the community to join in the writing. This is an easy way to extend the inquiry of the classroom into the rest of the school. It is also a good tool for communicating to parents about what goes on in the art studio.
SHARING MY OWN WORK
I would soon be asking students to paint on top of appropriated images from the Civil war. Since this layering practice is something I do in my own art, I shared my work with them. I told them that for me, painting over someone else’s photo was a way for me to respond to history.
CIVIL WAR IMAGE APPROPRIATION EXERCISE
1. Choose three historical images, (with doubles).
2.Think about and discuss the act of appropriation. Hypothesize. Who made the images? A war photographer? A newspaper illustrator? A political cartoonist? A advertiser for the slave trade? An abolitionist? As an artist, what will your role be? Will you be collaborating with the original image maker? Stealing from them? Enhancing their work? Does it matter to you? Would it matter to them? Why?
3. Arrange the images in the order of these three time periods and viewpoints: pre-Civil War, Civil War, and Emancipation Eras
White Plantation Owner White Plantation Owner White Plantation Owner
Pre Civil War Civil war Emancipation
Enslaved African American Enslaved African American Enslaved African American
Pre Civil War Civil War Emancipation
4.Paint over the images to express a specific point of view over time.
5.Add one descriptive word per image to interact with the image and viewpoint.
STUDENT SAMPLE: PRE CIVIL WAR ERA
This student used a photograph of a field laborer.“Devoted” shows the white plantation owner’s point of view of the scene, where the sky is blue, the cotton are pieces of gold, and the enslaved worker is a black shadow, and the other people in the photo are obliterated. The worker is alone. The owner feels his slave is devoted to him.“Demoted” shows the enslave person’s point of view of the situation with drearier colors, demarkation of his fellow workers, emphasis on stooped postures, and a more realistic, but still dehumanized figure.
STUDENT SAMPLE: CIVIL WAR ERA
This student used a photograph of African American Union Soldiers. “Rebellion” shows the white plantation owner’s point of view and the soldiers are reduced to a menacing shadow, rebellious monsters.“Redemption” from the African American’s point of view, shows a bright, glorious sky that dramatically offsets the soldiers as individual heroes or saints.
STUDENT SAMPLE: PRE CIVIL WAR ERA
This student used an abolitionist illustration of a slave ship interior. The white plantation owner would see people in terms of profit, shown by substituting human heads with gold dollar signs in “Wealth.” From the African Slave’s point of view, “Weak” is depicted with waves of black covering the heads and feet, showing bondage and loss of individuality. Only the clenched hands remain visible.
STUDENT SAMPLE: EMANCIPATION ERA
This student used a photograph of a war-ravaged southern town. The brown, haunted scene called, “Devastation” is from the white plantation owner’s point of view. The bright colored painting, “Liberation” with its yellow brick road, fluffy clouds, and golden highlights is from the African Slave’s point of view.
EACH STUDENT CREATED 6 PANELS EACH
TRANSFORMING AN IMAGE TO CREATE NEW MEANING
To the degree in which students need instruction on color theory, design unity, and compositional balance, they also need instruction on how to alter an appropriated image with design and imagery to communicate ideas. I instructed on all of this over the duration of this project by examining models and creating criteria together.
We built a list about how new meaning can be created on an image.
- editing (hiding, covering up) parts of the image
- overlaying color, texture, pattern, abstract shapes and line to evoke a mood
- adding another image on top to interact with the image
- emphasizing areas by selecting them through highlighting or outlining
The work was displayed on the walls for an exhibition night where students shared their written and oral presentations about multiple perspectives on the Civil War.
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Li, Y. (2007). Teaching visual culture in the 21st Century art classroom, Translations, 16(2), n.p. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.