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Through the eyes of O'Keeffe.

Through the Eyes of O'KEEFFE

Flowers are routinely used as subject matter in the elementary grades. By the time students reach the sixth grade they have clearly defined ideas about flowers that have been shaped by their elementary experiences. In short, most students have been "flowered" to death. They have been inadvertently taught that flowers are pretty, decorative and feminine. As a result, sixth graders think of flowers as rather boring subject matter and they're skeptical about any art assignment that includes them.

When I decided on an artist for my sixth graders to study, I chose Georgia O'Keeffe for her ability to change ordinary subjects into the extraordinary. She saw a common flower in a remarkable way: large, strong and imposing. The strength of her vision transforms her subject matter into something totally unexpected and unique. With some help from O'Keeffe's paintings, my sixth graders began to appreciate the elements of shape and color in a flower that transcended any notion of prettiness. In the process, they created their own unique visions of flowers.

Beginning the lesson

When students looked at O'Keeffe's Black Iris and White Camelia and began to learn about her paintings, their skepticism of the project melted away. They forgot about grade school stereotypes and began to get curious. Flowers? This big? What was this woman trying to do?

To begin, I analyzed a painting with the students. First I asked them to identify the subject matter of the painting. For most this was obvious, but some children were overwhelmed by the size of the forms and didn't realize the subject was a flower until other students pointed it out.

Next, we identified colors, described the kinds of forms, and discussed how these had been combined to create a flower shape. Then I asked what elements of the painting seemed unusual. Hands shot up. Students were impressed by the scale of the paintings and by O'Keeffe's concentration on one subject. "Why did she paint it so large?" was the number one question. We discussed the element of size in art and how increasing scale can add importance to a subject. I explained O'Keeffe's belief that she would make busy people stop and look at her flowers by painting them very large.

We also talked about the kinds of forms used in O'Keeffe's flowers. Students who had problems isolating and describing shape and form were comfortable describing the forms of Black Iris and White Camelia. "They're curvy and ruffly on the edges; they're fuzzy and soft," they said. Students also noted that there were fewer colors, or a narrower range of colors, in these reproductions than in other paintings they had seen. I asked if that bothered them. They said no, it seemed to fit and made the shape stronger.

Planning the paintings

After viewing slides of other O'Keeffe paintings, I instructed students to develop a 9" x 12" (23 cm x 30 cm) drawing of a flower on newsprint in one of three ways: 1) they could invent a flower form and make it as wild as possible, 2) they could draw from the three-dimensional silk flowers in the artroom or 3) they could draw from flower photos collected from gardening catalogs.

I repeatedly emphasized filling the format of the paper as students worked on their plans. I asked them to remember O'Keeffe's work - did she leave most of the canvas blank? Stopping the whole class and discussing the scale of the paintings again helped to remind students that it was important to fill their 9" x 12" (23 cm x 30 cm) format. A few students had trouble filling the whole space with just one flower, so different approaches were allowed out of necessity. Some children enlarged their small flower by adding larger and more fantastic petal shapes. Others added two or three more flowers to their plan.

When the preliminary drawings were complete, it was time to begin work on 18" x 24" (46 cm x 61 cm) paintings. Students enlarged the smaller sketch with pencil to fill an 18" x 24" (46 cm x 61 cm) space. They used the pencil lines as a guide and added black ink to important lines and shapes. When the inking process was complete, students began to paint in the large solid forms with tempera colors.

Finishing and reviewing

While the projects were being painted I held up reproductions of more flower paintings by O'Keeffe and asked students to check their own paintings - was their format full? Were their forms large and relatively simple? How had they decided to paint the background? Students were especially interested in a book of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings and several of them asked if they could read and look at it. A few became so involved in this activity that they lagged behind the rest of the class by one to two hours and special times had to be set aside for these children to finish their work.

The dramatic range of ability in my sixth grade art classes was softened by this assignment. Children who previously had problems drawing, composing and painting were able to focus on one or two flower shapes and resolve the assignment to their satisfaction. Many told me they thought it was their best work. This was the result of exploring shape in depth and emphasizing scale. When students enlarged a small flower to fill an 18" x 24" (46 cm x 61 cm) space, they were forced to concentrate on how to arrange forms. This process freed them from their old ideas about how to make a pretty or perfect flower.

When the completed paintings were hung in the hallways, they caused more comment from teachers and administrators than any other project displayed this year. The large areas of bright color and the energy students put into each work were hard to ignore. The strategy of scale that worked for O'Keeffe worked for students and captured the attention of parents and staff.

This lesson was successful because it inspired individual responses to a common subject matter. Students began to see a flower uncommonly and, hence, began to see the design possibilities in a flower form. They took a fresh look, and this encouraged a depth of participation not common in other art lessons. Objects that are frequently stereotyped can be exciting when explored through the eye of an artist.

PHOTO : Japanese Iris by Ian Merritt, sixth grade.

PHOTO : Lily by Jason Snyder, sixth grade.

PHOTO : Iris by Helen Le, sixth grade.

PHOTO : Crocus by Tara Feeney,

PHOTO : sixth grade.
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Title Annotation:Georgia O'Keeffe
Author:Ende-Saxe, Shirley
Publication:School Arts
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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