Contemporary Caryatids

posted on May 4, 2020

I‘ve been teaching AP studio art for the past five years and have spent as much time mulling over what to do in my art room after the portfolios are submitted in early May. Since students’ Capstone projects consist of the fifteen artworks they made for AP, it’s difficult to motivate them to do even just one more piece.

Left to right: Zoey F. led the creation of a group caryatid portrait inspired by her Korean heritage. Angelie T. led a collaborative homage to Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. A caryatid portrait inspired by drag queen Violet Chachki.

Working on a collaborative art project, though, seemed like an enticing change from the rigors of AP, giving me a lot of student buy-in. Students could work in teams, make something larger than twenty-four inches, and not have their best work temporarily shipped off to another state. It was the perfect post-AP project!


Making a Mark
A few years ago, I began presenting the idea of a caryatid painting as a group project for the last month of school. I abandoned our previous community art projects—doing a perspective drawing of the school, yarn-bombing the parking lot trees for graduation, making portraits of students’ favorite teachers—but I still was committed to the idea that students needed to somehow give back, and that they really wanted to leave a legacy by making a mark (or a lot of colorful marks) on their soon-to-be alma mater.


Powerful Support
I first came across caryatids in a world history book, but wasn’t truly fascinated until I took a trip and personally saw them supporting the porch of the Erechtheion in Athens, Greece. They are majestic stone women, balancing their weight on one leg, wrapped in chiffon, and without the slightest hint in their expression of distress at carrying the weight of the roof/porch on their heads! I loved them, but to bring them into our world, they needed to be transformed. Still powerful, supportive women, they would be painted on canvas and hot-glued to a pilaster in our high-school halls in Beloit, Wisconsin.


Creating a Caryatid Pillar
Students research art idioms or fall back on the ones they most favor to generate sketches of the colossal women they wish to paint. (We haven’t used a projector to enlarge their initial ideas, but don’t rule it out.) Teams sketch out and paint their designs, delegating face and hands, dress or costume, and accoutrements to those team members who possess the desire and skills to render them. My art room is very much a renaissance studio.


We work on pre-primed canvases that measure a couple of inches taller and wider than the pilasters in our hallway. The extra canvas is folded under and hot-glued in place. Students work on the canvases while they are flat and rolled out on the tables and use acrylic paint, stencils, and paint pens. One group spent days practicing rosemaling techniques, learned from YouTube videos, before adding them to their caryatid portrait of Violet Chachki, their favorite drag queen.

Zoey F. led the creation of a group caryatid portrait inspired by her Korean heritage.


Hallway Display
Hanging the caryatids can be a bit tricky, but if two students simultaneously hot-glue the sides of the canvas, starting from the top and working down, they usually end up with few wrinkles in them. Painting on canvas adhered to the walls lets us bypass the “paperwork” and administrative approval required for a full-on mural.


Contemporizing History
Initially, I thought it would be nice to have the caryatids each represent an art idiom, culture, or artist. A couple of students began with one caryatid in the style of Gustav Klimt, while another group created a canvas-covered caryatid inspired by Korean art. We are currently still at work on our caryatid-lined hallway and add to it every year. We’ve received a few requests from the foreign language department, and of course, world history— where their inspiration appears in the textbooks.


Elizabeth Carpenter is art department chair and AP studio teacher at Beloit Memorial High School, in Beloit, Wisconsin.


Caryatid Statues Restored: restored-are-stars-at-athensmuseum.html


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