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Art from art history: portraits in clay.

As a first-year art instructor teaching ceramics to a mixed grade nine through twelve art class, I was eager to incorporate art history into ceramics projects in an interesting and innovative way. While examining a book on ceramic sculpture, I came across a photograph of a clay portrait of Vincent van Gogh designed by the contemporary ceramist, Robert Arneson. A light bulb went off in my head . . . learning to sculpt and design a bust of a famous artist would give my students additional handbuilding experience and a provide an introduction to the role of portraiture in art.

Preliminary Research

I began with a trip to the media center where I took out every art history book I could find and brought them to the artroom. Next, I instructed my students to spend some time looking through the art books for a self-portrait by or an actual photograph of an artist, accompanied by the artist's artwork. My intent was to have the students design a sculpture that would reflect the chosen artist's artistic style. Could a student construct a bust of Monet and paint it with an impressionistic brushstroke?

I also instructed the class to read about the selected artist's life and work. At this point, a lively discussion ensued about the artists and the work that the students had chosen. For our final critique, I planned for the class to share with one another the history of their artist.

After the students finalized their selections of a portrait and artist, I instructed them to closely examine the painting they had chosen to work from. I asked the class to note the way in which the artist used paint: the texture of the brushstrokes, the layering of colors to build up a surface, etc. These would be important elements to remember when the students painted their sculptures.

Creating the Sculpture

I asked the students to bring in Red Delicious apples for the first step in creating their sculptures. The students covered the apples in plastic wrap and a thin layer of clay rolled out by students on the slab roller. A lump of clay was used to handbuild the shoulders and neck of the bust.

After the clay-covered apples firmed up a bit, each student eagerly looked forward to the next step. Brain Surgery! The class sliced around the top of their clay-covered apples, carefully lifting off the tops and pulling out their apples. Heads were glued back together by a little scratching and slurrying, and now, the students had hollow heads to connect to their waiting necks and shoulders. Additive sculpture created noses, eyebrows, hair, and ears. During the entire sculpture process, looking at art history books for guidance was an absolute necessity.

Painting the Work

Once the sculptures were completely dry, they were fired at cone 06. The class eagerly waited for their pieces to come out of the kiln, anxious to try their hands at working with acrylic paints. Although all of our projects up until this point had been done using colored slips and low-fire glazes, the class voted to use acrylic paints, feeling they would have more control mixing the exact colors they could see in the portraits in their books.

This is actually the part of the assignment that was the least successful. While the students had carefully crafted their busts out of clay, the painting seemed harder for them to handle. Working up the surface of their busts with acrylic paint and building color as seen in a Gauguin self-portrait was a bit advanced for my students. In retrospect, I think initial painting exercises could be incorporated into the assignment to prepare students for this portion of the project.

Asking Questions

What was most exciting to note was that questions arose about different artists during the days devoted to painting their artwork. I was happy to discover that all my students wanted to know more about their subject. The students were intrigued by Gauguin's travels in Tahiti, Saar's sculptures, O'Keeffe's paintings and life in the Southwest, and van Gogh's sad eyes. I felt very pleased as the time flew by during our final presentations and critique. The students displayed their sculptures proudly and showed pictures of the artiste' work to the rest of the class, introducing one another to all the -ism's of contemporary art.

When the work was put on display in the Media Center, the students could be overheard answering questions from their peers regarding their particular artist. I was pleased with the overwhelming supportive response by parents and faculty. This activity enriched the students' artistic and aesthetic backgrounds and gave them a well earned sense of accomplishment.

Jocelyn Castro-Santos is an art teacher at Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:secondary school art project
Author:Castro-Smith, Jocelyn
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Words:790
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