Students were asked to investigate ten disastrous events that changed the world for which humans were responsible. They could choose anything from war and famine to oil spills or wildfires, contemporary or historical. As they researched, students found that while each event had its own unique catalyst, purpose, or story, the destruction could happen in a variety of ways. Some events were instant and left devastation behind, some lingered over time and changed the landscape of history, and others continue to have profound effects on our world.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” —Rachel Carson
As artists, it is our nature to look at the beauty this world holds and honor it with our actions, words, and artistic reflections. If you look around at the riots, disease, weaponry, and destruction, it is clear that humanity has little regard for our earth and its living creatures.
I believe the best way to make change is through education. As art educators, it is important that we share the experiences of the past with students so that they can understand the ramifications of our actions and their impact on our world.
The Importance of Research
We began with research. Students were asked to investigate ten disastrous events that changed the world for which humans were responsible. They could choose anything from war and famine to oil spills or wildfires, contemporary or historical.
As they researched, students found that while each event had its own unique catalyst, purpose, or story, the destruction could happen in a variety of ways. Some events were instant and left devastation behind, some lingered over time and changed the landscape of history, and others continue to have profound effects on our world.
Selecting a Topic
I encouraged students to organize their topics, either chronologically or geographically. Examples of their chosen events included the Flint water crisis, Chernobyl, Radium Girls, Agent Orange, biological agents in China, the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and poison gases used in Syria. Students quickly found that our landscape had been forever altered by the hand of human beings; humanity had been crippled, and in some places, time stood still. As they researched, I asked students to narrow their topics down to the three that most tugged at their heartstrings.
With open-ended projects like this one, it is important for students to plan their visual ideas. To begin, students made a list of words, both literal and symbolic, to attach to the visual aspects of their idea. An example for the Flint water crisis might be pipes, glass of water, DNA, cancer cells, faucets, overflow, closed books, and statistical charts. This kind of list helps students stretch outside of their preconceived ideas.
I found that if I did not include this step, students often created a work that was more like a PSA poster rather than fine art. Although our approach was rooted in design, I stressed the idea that students should approach their work through a unique voice. Once the list was complete, each student created three thumbnail sketches, and we were able to look at design, composition, color choice, imagery, and voice in more detail.
At times, I found their ideas to be very engaging; at other times, I needed to give them advice or tools to help them stretch their imagery. Each of my students keeps a “taste-maker” board online. When I find that a student’s work isn’t well-rounded enough, I might ask the student to look at artist styles, color palettes, or materials to help further the mood, tone, or overall look of the work.
Art to Heal
My classes have been doing projects about social issues for years, but these topics were more engaging and original. I also found that students were profoundly changed by comprehending that the destruction of our earth (whether by nature or people) can be avoided, and realized that they could play a role in the future. They learned that they have control through their actions, through investing themselves politically or volunteering to serve others. It is through this creativity and sharing of the art we create that we can heal our world. Our hands have the power to make a difference, one artist and one work of art at a time.
Nicole D. Brisco is an art teacher at Pleasant Grove High School in Texarkana, Texas. NBrisco@pgisd.net
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
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