How can an artist make a difference in the world? What can they teach us about ourselves? About history?
In January, the middle school considered some of these questions through the work of artist Jacob Lawrence. We began by reading the book The Great Migration, written and illustrated by Lawrence. This book and its 60 illustrations tell the story of the African American migration from the southern to the northern states between the first and second world war. Created in 1940, when Lawrence was living in Harlem, the series of panels in the book tell the story of his parents and community.
My students and I have had plenty to talk about. The unifying elements of consistent color. The simplified shapes. The exaggerated size to focus our attention.
But when we delved further into Lawrence’s work, what most captivated the students was how he chose to paint people whose stories were not often told in history books. How his art provided a witness to historical figures whose contribution was often unsung. For example, Harriet Tubman and John Brown; both abolitionists. Or Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution.
Students turned from analyzing the elements of art to considering whose life, or what event, could be worthy of being illustrated. Now we are transforming our thoughts into art. Students brainstormed ideas for a series that they could create about a time in history. The three teams settled on World War II, the Space Race, and Louis Zamperini.
The teams have divided their topics into sections and each student is sketching a portion of the story. Soon they will paint their panels. This work requires research and careful consideration: how can you make history into something visible?
Like Jacob Lawrence, students will use a few sentences to explain their image. To put it into the context of the story as a whole. As final pieces emerge, we will see something new about history. How it is seen through the eyes of the next generation of leaders.
This summer, the Museum of Modern Art, in NYC, will show all 60 of Lawrence’s panels from The Migration Series for the first time in 20 years. I highly recommend a visit to MoMA.