Sacred stone carvings.
Like many art teachers, we are always on the lookout for exciting projects from different cultures to introduce to our diverse population of students. This time we needed to look no further than our own Art Institute of Chicago. They had just launched a major exhibition entitled "The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes." The works, created over a period of 3000 years, portrayed the history of artistic and cultural achievement of Amerindian cultures before the Spanish contact. It took visitors on a geographic journey from the deserts of New Mexico to the mountains of Peru. The power and beauty of the images were extraordinary. The common theme that ran through all the work--a respect for and attachment to nature--is especially important for today's students.
We began our unit involving fourth and fifth grade art students by exploring the packet of slides, posters and written information which the Art Institute had generously provided to us. To this was added a variety of visuals from our personal and school collections. We viewed pictures of the sun, water, fire and corn gods. We examined images of jaguars and serpents and other animals held sacred because they dwelled in sacred landscapes. Students were introduced to shaman figures, those healer/warriors who acted as intermediaries between humans and gods. The children were quite excited about the images they viewed-fierce figures with exotic expressions, exaggerated features, elaborate headdresses and dazzling decorations. They were cager to begin their own work, but with so many images in so many media we knew we needed to first limit our focus.
We decided to concentrate on the monumental stone carvings created for the pyramids constructed by the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. Each student was to select a sacred animal, god, shaman or chief he or she wished to portray, and then create a personal vision of it. We selected balsa foam as our medium because it can be easily carved and colored. Sketches were first executed in pencil on 11 x 24" Manila paper. They were then transferred to the same size pieces of balsa foam by pricking toothpicks through the sketch onto the foam. Carbon paper would have worked well, too. Students then had to decide in advance what parts of their design to leave in relief and which parts to carve. We encouraged the students to achieve three levels of depth in their designs. Toothpicks, emery boards, popsicle sticks, spindles and that old standby, fingers, all worked well for the actual carving. Recycled cardboard boxes from our school's pop machine proved the perfect container for the work, which produced quite a bit of "sand" shavings.
Everyone was absorbed in the new process which was quickly being mastered. Comments flowed freely. "I never knew carving was so easy." "This is hard work, but fun." "This looks different than I wanted it to, but better." The carving itself took three, forty-five minute art classes. Once the carving was completed, we discussed simulating the look of stone by applying light washes of tempera paint in neutral colors.
The project culminated in a brief writing assignment in which students were asked to describe the images they created. Many of the descriptions were as colorful and intricate as the carvings themselves. We considered this unit, which lasted eight weeks, extremely successful. The students were proud of their efforts and we were delighted with the unique works they created. We noticed the special sense of connectedness and pride this unit brought to our Hispanic students.