My students love surrealism. When I showed them the art of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, their imaginations soared. They loved the silliness and the dreamlike bending of reality. It mirrored their play. I would watch them create their own cities with LEGOs and blocks and then populate them with action figures, dolls, and any other toys or items they had. I decided to introduce an art project using the surrealist notions of my students’ playtime imaginations and the photomontages that grew out of the Dadaist movement.
Melvin G.Eli V.Cadence W.David G.Nasseri D.Benjamin A.Jose M.
I envisioned a colorful and contemporary layered collage with the large cinematic billboard feel of pop artist James Rosenquist. I saw how Rosenquist’s works used the dissonant coupling of images intrinsic to collage to produce works that were mysterious, complex, and abstract, yet universal and specific at the same time. I felt this would be a perfect springboard to connect my students with themselves and their imaginations.
I called Maria Teresa Cardenas, an art teacher with whom I frequently collaborate, to help flesh out and make this idea work as a project. We decided that the art would be a combination of a dramatic self-portrait of the students combined with elements of their interests and imaginations.
First, students each took a series of photos just playing around to get a grasp on various sides of their personalities. We chose a series of shots of each student to show a spectrum of expressions. Next, we gave students a collage assignment where they looked through magazines, newspapers, and the internet to find pictures of things they enjoyed. We supervised students closely while they cut out their images, lending our assistance, if needed.
Choosing a Playground Setting
Next, Maria Teresa had students each choose a background setting for their work. I called this the “playground setting” because it was the area where students would showcase themselves and their interests in a playful manner.
Thinking back to the surrealists, we decided that the settings could be various nature landscapes, outer space, famous landmarks, or metropolitan backdrops because these would give students a chance to play with reality a bit. Once students chose their individual backgrounds, they laid out all their pictures of themselves and their interests in front of them and then cut carefully around each image so that it could be glued onto the background when the final arrangement was decided.
Putting it Together
We asked students to turn on their imaginations and figure out how to incorporate themselves and their interests into their background settings. This is the part they really enjoyed because their artworks started to look like their imaginative play. Students claimed world landmarks and landscapes for themselves and played around with giant versions of their favorite foods and elements of pop culture.
Students took a while to figure out their compositions, yet they were playing the whole time. Some made up stories on the spot about what was happening in their pictures.
Sizes and shapes changed as cities became playgrounds to climb on. Gravity became an illusion as students bounced off walls and buildings, and danced in outer space, or flew over aerial shots of cities. One student balanced on telephone wires with his favorite superheroes. Another climbed skyscrapers like King Kong.
Maria Teresa asked students to glue their pictures down when they were pleased with the arrangement. Finally, we applied a water-based sealer over the works to keep them intact.
Students’ artworks were displayed in an exhibition at the Lindhurst Galleries at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California. Visitors to the show commented how they really felt like they were actually watching these students playing. One person remarked, “I can really feel their personalities by looking at their work. I feel like I know each kid here even if I have never met them before.”
Looking across the gallery at the artworks, I felt that I was seeing a fluid and contemporary version of the self-portrait. Yet, taken as a whole, these works were more than that; they were a showcase of the wonders of children’s imaginations. I could go into each student’s little world and recall a time when imagination and play controlled a large part of the day. A time when the joy of creating fantasy and inventing new rules and ideas was commonplace. A time where surrealism could be called normal.
John Purcell is an art teacher at 32nd Street/ USC Magnet School in Los Angeles, California. DrJohnPurcell@yahoo.com
Connecting: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
Art teachers incorporate humor, play, game creation, and imagination into their lessons. Young students assemble surreal imaginative photomontages, elementary students create pinch-pot monsters and 3D environments to film in stop-motion animation, middle-school students reference pop culture in playful pop art television sculptures, high-school students interpret their social media personas through photo collage, and more.