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Famous artist chairs.

Every year, I try to teach a specific art history unit for my high school studio classes. I look for something innovative with a slightly different slant to avoid student boredom and to engage students in actually learning content. Finding the right vehicle to motivate students is a challenge. The Famous Artist Chairs project developed after a discussion with my middle school principal who had recently been to an art museum in Stockholm, Sweden. He was excited by an exhibit of chairs handled as sculptural objects. As we discussed chairs as metaphors for support, comfort and visually interesting structures, we agreed art can be seen as a resting place in a chaotic world and a place to find comfort. The seed was planted.

I started hunting for chairs immediately. I announced to my students and faculty that I wanted a variety of old wooden chairs for a project; it didn't matter if they were broken. Unfortunately only three chairs arrived in my artroom after six months. I thought that if different chairs were not available, maybe I could locate ones that were the same. Two local fire companies were called to ask if they had wooden folding chairs. They informed me that those kinds of chairs were long since gone. Finally, I located seventeen in a local church basement. They hadn't been used in years, and for a small donation they were mine.

The students helped prepare them by washing off the years of dirt and applying two coats of white latex paint as a base--one gallon just made it. They sat in rows in the middle of the artroom, and some students asked if there was going to be a wedding. At this point, the students still did not know what they were going to be asked to do with these chairs, but anticipation was growing. After acquiring the chairs, I focused on the structure of the assignment.

The students were then handed a prospectus on this three-part project that covered the overall concept, time lines, writing element, painting aspect, presentation and grading.

To help the students pick an artist, I researched a variety of possibilities, and selected examples of fifteen artists' work based on varied styles. These were numbered and posted on a large display board. The list of artists included Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Cezanne, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Gustav Klimt, Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat.

I spent a few minutes talking about each artist so the students could gain some insight into their styles. Given a blank sheet of paper, students were asked to write their own name, and pick two artists they were interested in for further investigation. They were given a first and second choice, so the students could be put in pairs based on the artist that interested them, rather than on a friendship basis. Most worked in pairs, but there were three students who worked alone. These single students strongly preferred a certain artist that no one else had chosen. I agreed as long as they met the same requirements as the rest of the class. in all, fifteen student chairs were painted. The students accomplished the written clement within the allotted time frame. Many also added visually exciting covers to their reports. I read through their drafts, made suggestions and asked a member of the English department faculty to read through the final submissions and make comments.

The students started working slowly with pencil on the chairs, developing images or combinations of the artist's images. As they moved into the painting stage, I stressed the importance of having the artist's work in front of them. This allowed for the understanding of color, brush-strokes and overall composition. The question was always asked, What is the essence of this artist's style? The painting element took twice as long as I projected; approximately four and a half weeks. The marking period forced the deadline, however, and students had to put extra time in at home. Chairs, paint and brushes were taken home either overnight or on weekends.

As the project began I couldn't resist picking one artist to do myself. I was curious about the difficulty of this process and what pitfalls would be encountered. My involvement allowed me to speak more authentically with the students as we went along. Paul Gauguin was my choice because no one else picked him, and I was curious to see if I was capable of dealing with the richness of his use of color. Surprisingly, I found that it was not that difficult to wrap imagery around the form of the chair. The challenge was to see if the chair showed a sense of color unity from a distance. In terms of artistic similarity, Gauguin worked on some fairly rough surfaces which showed in the texture of the paint. The chairs we used were smooth and so the texture was difficult to achieve.

Throughout the process, many students and faculty stopped in to the artroom to see the progression, make comments and decide which chairs they liked the best. A decision was made from the start that since two people were working on each chair, we would have an auction when they were finished, to alleviate any arguments over who got the chair, and to benefit a fund raiser for the art program. In the meantime, the work was exhibited in the school and local public library. It has been shared on the state level at a symposium of art teachers on how art history can be incorporated into studio art classes. Since the process was videotaped from beginning to end by the media arts class, it was shown at the New Jersey State Art Teachers Convention in October of 1992 and will be shown at the National Art Education Association Convention next April.

The project was an integrative success because of the inclusion of a written element, a hands-on painting experience, and a verbal presentation. The students felt great accomplishment; they learned more about painting, artistic expression and art history. The chairs can be seen as a metaphor for a group of artists sitting together, all similar in structure yet remarkably different in expression.


The Famous Artist Chair project is divided into three parts. Students pick one famous artist to focus on, understand the essence of that artist's style, and work in pairs to paint those qualities onto a wooden chair.

Writing Element (Five Class Periods)

The research can be done in the library. Learn the time frame, and what the major influences were on the art of that time. This includes qualities of the use of color, composition and concepts of artistic expression. Answer the question: Why was this artist famous? Three reference sources must be used and documented to show a greater understanding of the artist. Both members of a team should combine the information, and type it for final presentation. Approximately two written pages are required.

Painting Element (About Two Weeks)

Both students combine their talent and creativity to paint

a chair capturing the essence of the artist's style. All surfaces

must be painted with a concern for color, composition

and style. Acrylic or latex paint will be used and a

clear finish applied when the project is completed.

Presentation Element (Ten Minutes per Team)

Each partnership will present its work to the rest of the class with an explanation of who the artist is, and the artist's influences and style. The presentation will address why they created what they did, and how it reflects their style.


Each element receives a grade and each member of the group receives the same grade for each element.
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Author:Vieth, Ken
Publication:School Arts
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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