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Chairs: criticism, history and aesthetics in relation to studio production.

Art teachers are continuously looking for lessons that easily infuse art history, aesthetics, criticism and studio production. CHAIRS is one such lesson that combines these four disciplines in a unique and motivating manner.

Introducing CHAIRS

I showed my fourth grade students examples of typical industrial designed chairs. I then raised a question of aesthetics; "Should a chair be considered art?" This, of course, led us to the age old question of "What is art?" After our discussion, students concluded that a chair could be classified as an art form because of the artistic decisions pertaining to the size, shape, color and materials that were involved. I then showed them a chair titled The Cadillac Chair which was designed with the back of a Cadillac as the main form of the chair. It reminded students of something that they would possibly see on Pee-Wee's Playhouse. We talked about how this chair was different from the industrial designed chairs viewed earlier, and how each had a different function and purpose.

I then demonstrated how to draw a basic chair shape involving perspective in a manner similar to the way an industrial designer might draw one. When all students had a basic chair drawn on their papers, I asked them to transform their chairs into a personalized fantasy chair. We brainstormed different types and titles of chairs before students started to draw. Their final ideas ranged from a beach chair with surfboard legs and wave arms, to chairs combining food, animals and electrical gadgets.

At this point, students had no idea that their next step was to make a model of the chair they had just created. Upon discovering this, they were excited but intimidated by the idea of trying to construct the complicated and detailed chairs they had designed.

Problem Solving

The first problem that students needed to solve was turning their two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional models. I showed them the materials that were available in the room for constructing their chairs, including cardboard, paper towel tubes, wire, white glue, tape and objects from the scrap box such as wood, fabric and metal. I also encouraged them to bring in other items from home to fabricate their chairs. The scale of the chair and how to produce it was left to the students; however, most finished sculptures ranged between two and three feet high.

Throughout the construction phase, I circulated around the room, helping students arrive at solutions to problems that arose. Most of the problems were not how to go about erecting the chair, but how to keep the pieces attached. Almost all of the joining was done by using white glue and taping the pieces together until the glue had dried. Because of the size and weight of some of the pieces, this method was not always successful, especially in places where the highest stresses of weight were contained. I though it would be helpful to demonstrate the use of plaster of Paris strips. Students were shown how to join two pieces together by using tape, then covering the tape with layers of plaster strips. When dry, the plaster made a much more permanent bond than the glue, and students found this technique very helpful when placing the backs of their chairs onto the seats.

Taking Time Out

After students had worked on their chairs for several sessions and the basic construction phase of the sculptures was finished, we took time out to look at and critique fantasy chairs designed by various art-ists. We viewed examples of chairs by Picasso, Greenbalt, Wharton and Simpson. We critiqued each artist's work, focusing on interpreting the chair's meaning and function. Some of the chairs shown were non-functional; one contained thorns on the seat of the chair and another's proportions were scaled so as to make it impossible for sitting. I asked the students why they thought the chairs were purposely made in this manner and if the work should still be considered a chair. Students made comparisons between the chairs and saw how one object could be defined and interpreted in many different ways.

Taking time out to examine other artists' work and motives seemed to inspire my students even more. In the following weeks they eagerly sculpted their chairs, adding final pieces and embellishing them with paint. Most used tempera paint, but a few found the need to use spray paint and acrylics. Final details were added with wire, yarn and found objects.

The Final Critique

At the conclusion of their work, we turned to our final critique. The critique started with the students' self-assessment of what they had created. I had each student answer several questions that focused on the meaning of their work, instead of the Physical qualities of the chairs themselves. Students reflected on such questions as: * How does your chair change peoples' attitudes or ideas about chairs? * Where would be the best place or environment in which to set your chair? * Who might sit in your chair and when would they sit in it? * What feelings or ideas does your chair express? * How would someone's personality change if they sat in your chair?

Each student cut out one of the questions along with the answer, and placed it in a box. Each student drew one of the slips, read it and placed it alongside the chair he or she believed it belonged to. We then read the slips next to each chair. Proceeding with the critique in this manner gave students the opportunity to see how others interpreted their work and if it matched their own ideas and intent.

The final critique wrapped up our lesson on chairs, and it was evident that students were not only pleased with their work, they learned to view an object they encounter daily in different perspective. This lesson continued for several weeks, but motivation remained high throughout due to the inclusion of varied activities involving discussions, slides and critiques. The possibilities of using chairs as a theme in art class is limitless. Activities could be centered around other ideas, such as: the symbolic nature of chairs, chairs from various cultures, ritualistic aspects of the chair, and the chair as a reflection of the time and society in which it was created. Using these ideas as the focus of a lesson can easily help integrate criticism, history and aesthetics in relation to the studio production of chairs.

Todd Kuhn teaches art at Albert Chapman Elementary School, Dublin, Ohio.
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Author:Kuhn, Todd
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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