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Animal treks through time & space.

Animal themes can be vehicles for art teachers to embark on exciting journeys through time and space. To help my students learn about the use of animals as cultural symbols, I led them through a six-part project.

Word Art: Illustration

First, I asked my students to list in their journals as many phrases as they could that dealt with animals, such as "curious as a cat," "wise as an owl," "raining cats and dogs," and so on. From these lists, the students chose one phrase to illustrate. The students could use words in their illustrations as long as they were incorporated into the overall design.

Medieval Art: Coat of Arms

The next assignment was to draw a self-portrait using symbols. To begin, the students looked at family emblems from the Middle Ages. Knights wore surcoats, or tunics, over their armor that bore their family emblem. The emblem often depicted an animal that symbolized a trait or characteristic of its owner. The surcoat is the original "coat of arms." For more inspiration, the students looked at the symbolic use of animals on items, such as flags, insignias, and badges.

After the students decided on an animal for their emblem, they listed four aspects of their personalities or activities. Next, the students drew symbols to represent these features. Using pencils and markers on a large piece of paper, the students placed their animal in the center of the shield and divided the surrounding space into areas in which to depict other aspects of their personalities.

The success of the coat of arms as a self-portrait was evaluated by the class on its overall design and how clearly it depicted the person's character. Each student defended her or his choice of animal.

Pacific Coast Art: Totems

The students viewed the videos Tribal Design and Gente del Sol to see how artists from different cultures have depicted animals. From the videos, the students learned that the Native American totem poles of the Pacific Coast are similar to the coats of arms from Europe. While the European family may have selected a lion or an eagle to symbolize its view of itself, the clan family of the Pacific Coast might have selected a bear or a raven as its totem animal. Totem poles were a dramatic display of the identity of the inhabitants of the household.

After searching through resources for design ideas, the students made sketches of totems and then transferred the drawings to 12 x 24'' (31 x 61 cm) wooden boards. In the tradition of the people of the Pacific Coast, the students used a color scheme of black, white, red, blue, and green acrylic paint to finish their work.

Inuit Art: Printmaking

The students then traveled north to the Arctic and learned about the art of the Inuit. The Inuit are known for their stencil and relief prints. The imagery that the Inuit draw upon includes the seal and the walrus. The seal is their primary game and also appears frequently in their art and folklore; the walrus is another important food source and is also valued for its ivory tusks for tools and ceremonial purposes.

To create animal prints of their own, the students sketched their ideas on paper and then carved their designs into Soft-Kut blocks, a nontoxic, synthetic material (made by Triarco) that can be carved easily with cutting tools. Linoleum can also be used. As the students created their prints, they used the simplified shapes of blacks and whites they had viewed in many of the Inuit prints.

Huichol Art: Yarn Paintings

Leaving the Arctic cold behind, we journeyed south to the warm, sunny climate of Mexico. I introduced the students to the Huichol, descendants of the Aztecs. The Huichol live in the western Sierra Madre, a remote part of Mexico, which is isolated from the outside world by rugged mountain peaks and deep canyons.

The Huichol are well known for their colorful yarn paintings. Working in the sun, the Huichol cover thin boards with beeswax and press the yarn into warm wax. They use symbols from nature to tell stories that represent important ideas and beliefs of their culture. Inspired by studies of the Huichol, the students glued yarn onto tagboard to create animal yarn paintings.

Mexican Art: Pottery

As the students continued farther south, they arrived in Tonala, an important pottery center in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Pottery abounds there in various forms, including small, handmade clay animals. These delightful animal figures are usually painted in grays or earth tones and then decorated with fanciful symbols.

Influenced by the Tonala pottery figures, the students created clay animals and decorated them with free-flowing flowers, butterflies, swirling lines, and dots.

The Journey Continues

When the students completed their animal artifacts, they shared the information they had learned about the use of animals as cultural symbols. They talked about where and how the people lived who produced the original artifacts, why the people produced the artifacts, and how the people used them.

It had been an exciting journey. The students had learned a great deal, but this was not the end. They had merely paused to reflect on where they had been, what they had seen, and what they had discovered. Their journey continues.



Campbell, David. Native American Art and Folklore: A Cultural Celebration. Avenel, NJ: Crescent Books, 1993.

Houston, James. Eskimo Prints. Barre, MA: Barre Publishers, 1967.

Schuman, Jo Miles. Art From Many Hands. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc., 1981.


Crizmac Art and Educational Materials. Gente del Sol. Distributed by Davis Publications, Inc., Worcester, MA.

Crizmac Art and Educational Materials. Tribal Design. Distributed by Davis Publications, Inc., Worcester, MA.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes bibliography; using art education to teach students about animals as cultural symbols
Author:Harwell-Amos, Janneth
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1996
Previous Article:Rock animals.
Next Article:Party animals: the myth & magic of Marc Chagall.

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