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In the steps of Jacob Lawrence: a moving collage.

For African-American History Month, I choose an African-American artist to focus on with my upper-grade students. Last year I selected Jacob Lawrence, and followed a lesson idea from a Phillips Collection slide packet. The teachers' guide suggested that after viewing Lawrence's Great Migration series, students might be asked to "illustrate a social injustice." I was sure that upper-elementary students would enjoy Lawrence's story and paintings, but felt that they were perhaps too young to be motivated by this abstract concept. I wanted to make a more personal connection to the children's lives in order to inspire their artwork. Little did I know at the time, that once I found a way to do this I would be tapping into a gold mine of experience and emotion much richer than I had ever anticipated.

I began the lesson by putting up at least a dozen prints from the Great Migration Series, announcing that Jacob Lawrence would be our African-American History Month artist this year. After giving some biographical background about Lawrence's early years, I asked if anyone had ever heard of the Great Migration. Curiosity piqued, I went on to say that in the 1930s Jacob Lawrence hadn't heard of it either, until he began doing some of his own research in the New York City public libraries. In his reading, Lawrence found out that the Great Migration was a huge movement of African-American farm workers from the rural South to the urban industrial North, spurred by the factory labor shortage during World War I and continuing through the 1930s.

The story struck a chord with the young Lawrence. He realized that his own parents had been part of this migration and that most Americans had never heard of it. He decided to tell the story to the world in a narrative series of sixty small panel paintings. This was a landmark decision for the young artist's career. When these panels were exhibited in a New York City gallery in 1941, they brought him instant fame and recognition. Then just twenty-four years old, Lawrence went on to become one of the major American painters of the twentieth-century.

Next the class viewed slides while I read the matching captions from The Great Migration children's book. I pointed out elements of Lawrence's style, such as the use of color to show mood, unusual points of view, and symbolism such as the black, migrating birds. Students seemed moved by this unfamiliar piece of history. But it was important to me that they see it in a broader context--not just as an African-American story but as an American one.

I listed the names of several countries that students or their families had come from. Encouraging them to share through their art, I announced the project, "Make a collage that shows a time of movement or travel in your personal history or in your family history." The only composition guidelines given were to "fill the space" of the 12 x 18" (31 x 46 cm) royal blue or light blue construction paper. Students were also asked to consider using:

* an unusual point of view

* color to show mood

* gesture, or body language

* a symbol

I provided a palette of cut papers of various sizes and colors; the colors deliberately limited as closely as possible to the colors Jacob Lawrence used in his series. I encouraged layering and detail, but did not allow felt-tip pens. Glue sticks, rather than glue bottles, helped with neatness.

The activity time was lively and thoughtful. Very few students had difficulty coming up with an idea. To those who did, I allowed that a special trip or vacation could also count as a time of travel.

It was exciting for me to watch as picture collages emerged from empty space. Students pulled from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds--from Viking ships to Vietnam, from a moving truck in Florida to an escape from Nazi Germany. During the next class, the collages were completed. As a final closing step, the young artists were asked to write a few sentences to display with their picture, a step of which I feel Jacob Lawrence would have approved.

Soon, the collage stories lined the main halls of the school, including a sign explaining the project. It was a great mix, a fascinating panorama of the American story. Sadness, excitement, joy, and fear were expressed. I thought back to Lawrence's first show in 1941, feeling renewed respect for the groundbreaking American artist.


Students select and use subject matter, symbols, and ideas to communicate meaning.

Lil Cooney is an art teacher at Louise Archer Elementary School, Fairfax County Public Schools, Vienna, Virginia.
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Author:Cooney, Lil
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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