Whose story deserves to be told? Art as historical storytelling



Panel 58 of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series: collaborative collage reproduction by fourth and fifth grade students

To study the works of prominent African American painter Jacob Lawrence is to study history. Lawrence used his art to tell the stories of important historical figures and events that were less likely to be found in history books. To give voice to those who were often voiceless. I want my students to see how powerful art can be in telling truth and to catch a vision for how their art can speak. I like that Jacob Lawrence has a local connection—he was born here in New Jersey and was part of the Harlem Renaissance.

As the fourth and fifth grade students prepare to lead the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, we study Lawrence’s Migration Series. These sixty panels tell the story of the move of millions of African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North after World War I began. As we look closely at the panels, we learn about some of the reasons for this migration. Panel 58 shows a desire for better education. Panel 59 depicts the right to vote. This year we worked together to recreate these two panels in collage. As they worked, students considered what stories “deserve” to be told.

fourth and fifth grades with panel

Fourth and fifth grade students with their collaborative collage reproduction of Jacob Lawrence’s panel 59 of the Migration Series.

Students in grades six through eight looked at the artwork of Jacob Lawrence and took on another challenge: creating their own series. Each cohort had to decide on a theme for their team’s series. Suggestions varied from the Beatles to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Finally, the students decided to portray the Olympics, the American Women’s Rights Movement, and the history of Mustard Seed School. Within each theme, each student chose one part of the story to represent in their paintings. This involved a great deal of cooperation and compromise as students decided what were the important parts of the story.


Students in grades 6-8 research the Women’s Rights movement for art panels

Some students approached the topic with a visual idea already in mind, or a fact that they thought definitely had to be included. Other students had to research the topic and then transfer the information into a visual medium. All along the way, I reminded them that the goal was to convey information without using words. For the Women’s Rights Movement theme, the Golden Globe awards had just happened, so one student wanted to portray the actresses ’choices to wear black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement. Some of the other topics depicted included the first American female astronaut, the first female Supreme Court Justice, women gaining the right to own land, and women in the military. One student loves fashion, so her painting is about women’s fight to wear pants. Another student’s painting looks to the future and imagines the inauguration of the first female president!

future female

womens pay

Stop by MSS to see the panels in person. See how middle school students paint history.

mss staff

Clara Buckley

CLARA BUCKLEY, Upper School Art Teacher

Ms. Buckley teaches the oldest and youngest children at Mustard Seed. This results in an unusual combination of knowledge about social media and nursery rhymes.