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Art history and young children: a perfect match.

"The poor cat!" piped a seven-year-old sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of me.

"Why couldn't Ben go out and buy a brush?" asked a practical girl behind him.

The children were reacting to a story I had just told them about Benjamin West's making paintbrushes out of the hair on his cat's tail. For the past three years, I have been exploring Art History with groups of first, second and third graders. Together we have gathered in ritual dance and song before our cave paintings of animals in preparation for the hunt. We have been employed as scribes in the palace of an Egyptian pharaoh. We have gone to market with Donatello and helped him fill his apron with fresh vegetables to bring to his friend, Brunelleschi, for dinner. We have helped Leonardo work on an invention which would revolutionize life for millions of people. We have watched the young, fiery-tempered Michelangelo break the nose of a fellow sculpture student. We have carefully guarded Toulouse-Lautrec's secret and never told anyone he kept his liquor hidden in a hollow cane. We have labored with Georgia O'Keeffe as she tried to stretch the enormous canvas for her Clouds.

What do these activities and stories have to do with the study of art? Shouldn't the children be studying an artist's works, style, use of color, choice of subject matter? Of course! But interest in an artist's work is born from an interest in the artist as a person. Over the years, I've discovered that there is no better way to hold young children's attention than by telling a good story. And so each week, I spend long hours in the library digging up interesting tidbits about the artist we will be studying. What was life like during the time in which the artist lived? What was family life like? Was childhood happy or unhappy? Did the artist's parents approve when the decision was announced to become an artist? Did the artist marry and have children? Was it popular or unpopular to be an artist? Sometimes I act out a scene in the artist's life with great drama. Often my students join in the acting. The artist comes to life in our midst, and before long, the children are begging for more.

We launch into a discussion of the artist's work by viewing reproductions, slides or videos.

Each session ends with children's involvement in an art project which imitates the artist's style or subject matter. We might paint Native Americans as George Catlin did; or try our hand at cutouts a la Henri Matisse. Over the years, we've designed aqueducts (Roman); molded statues out of clay (Michelangelo); done etchings (Rembrandt); made posters for our annual May Day celebration (Toulouse-Lautrec); painted watercolors (Winslow Homer); and astounded the art world with our oversized paintings of flowers (Georgia O'Keeffe). The possibilities are limitless.

The typical History of Art session lasts about an hour and takes place once a week. The first fifteen minutes are given over to story-drama as described above. This is followed by a twenty-minute discussion of the artist's work. Finally, the children launch into an art project of their own. If they become especially involved in discussion, if a film or the slides we are viewing take longer than usual, or if an art project is particularly time consuming, we do not hesitate to carry a session over to the following week. A whole session devoted to acting is often requested by the children. For example, after weeks of studying the French Impressionists, the students took turns working individually or in groups) acting out scenes from various artists' lives. The rest of us had to guess the name of the artist involved. While children need the security of a fixed format, they also need the flexibility of a caring adult who is sensitive to their needs.

Certainly, this method of teaching the history of art is more demanding of the teacher's time than simply bringing in reproductions and talking about them. It requires long hours of research (because it seems that the details which are the hardest to uncover are the ones which are more fascinating to the children), a considerable amount of showmanship, and a great deal of energy. Is it worth it? The children have answered that question over and over again. They have come running up to me in the middle of a social studies research project, encyclopedias in their hands and smiles on their faces because "That artist we talked about yesterday is in this book, too!" They have lugged in art books from home so that we could all see more works of an artist we particularly enjoyed. They have asked me to settle family disputes that arise during dinner discussions. "Will you tell my mom Andrew really knew Christina. She says he didn't, but you told us he did."

One of my favorite incidents took place last year when we visited the American collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two children went up to Charles Wilson Peale's painting, The Staircase Group. "Here's the painting he used to trick his friends into thinking his two boys were there in the studio," said one.

"Yeah, doesn't it look like those kids are really here climbing the stairs?" asked his companion.

They had met an old friend, and were delighted with their discovery.
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Author:Saccardi, Marianne
Publication:School Arts
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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