At the start of the school year, after a year of hybrid, virtual, and dual modes of instruction, I noticed a strong resistance to risk-taking in the art room. I needed to retrain my students to take risks and challenge their thinking. The sense of play was no longer there, and students were looking to be told exactly what to do. There was no better time to think like a contemporary artist. Studying artists who base their process of play, chance, and risk was an excellent starting point.
Preston K., A Fancy House at Night, grade four.Rania G., The Rainbow Swimming Pool, grade three.Lainey B., Cat with a Toy, grade three.Left: Charlie F., preliminary sketch and collage in progress. Right: Charlie F., Tree-Dome, Early Morning, grade four.
“But are they alive?” This question is commonly heard in my elementary art room. My students are practically obsessed with the need to know if the artist being studied is living or deceased. If I can answer yes to that question, a quiet roar erupts as if a victory in accessibility has been achieved.
Why Use Contemporary Artists?
The use of contemporary artists in the elementary art room inspires rich, authentic making for all students of all ages. When students are able to actually hear the artist’s voice talk about the meaning behind the work, anything is possible. Students are able to build a connection with the artist and process because the artist is “alive” and accessible, creating work that is relevant to current times. The work of a contemporary artist is approachable for students because it is not created in a vacuum and reflects the world as we know it.
Incorporating Artists in Units of Study
As an art teacher designing elementary curriculum, I start with a Big Idea that I want students to investigate and think through with art materials. Next, I choose several artists to incorporate into the unit. Sometimes I pick artists based on the process they use; other times I select them because of their subject matter or medium. The objective is for students to experience how artists work and communicate their ideas through art, and not to replicate their work or style. Students are inspired and engaged, creating works with meaning that look completely different from one another.
The Art Process
At the start of the school year, after a year of hybrid, virtual, and dual modes of instruction, I noticed a strong resistance to risk-taking in the art room. I needed to retrain my students to take risks and challenge their thinking. The sense of play was no longer there, and students were looking to be told exactly what to do. There was no better time to think like a contemporary artist. Studying artists who base their process on play, chance, and risk was an excellent starting point.
Learning from Arturo Herrera
Arturo Herrera’s work prompts the viewer to think about what they see, look for hidden images, and recall memories. He also focuses on chance in his work instead of planning for an end result. Playing with this process in the art room is beneficial and is a great creative exercise. Students took risks with their materials and used a process similar to Herrera’s collage method.
I created the “shape-drop and trace” method to get students thinking about hidden images and meanings within their work. I dropped a handful of tagboard shapes of varying sizes on students’ papers and had them use bingo daubers to trace the outline, resisting the urge to move the shapes once they hit the paper. The buzz and excitement in the room was palpable as students traced to uncover the hidden shape. Next, they looked for picture possibilities, adding details to the outline with oil pastels. We worked large with this art challenge, using 18 x 24" (46 x 61 cm) paper. The final task for the day was to add a watercolor wash over the oil pastel.
Learning from Susan Rothenberg
Another way to use contemporary artists in the art room is with the study of materials and methods. Susan Rothenberg, a painter interested in color mixing, vantage point, and scenes from daily life is an approachable artist for students to learn from. Rothenberg discusses her need for dirtying down colors in various Art21 video segments, taking the viewer into a monochromatic dream. Color mixing and composition building are necessary skills in the elementary art curriculum.
Fourth-graders focused on time of day and how the colors we see change with light conditions. Students thought about their favorite time of day and imagined where they would be or what they would see. Colors were mixed to create painted papers that coincided with that time of day. The subject matter was sketched and planned, and students focused on vantage points for strong composition. When the papers dried, students used the collage method to recreate the sketches with cut paper.
Postmodern art education practice involves creating opportunities for students to make art that is reflective of the world around them. The purpose of having an art class is to allow students to explore, experiment, question, and investigate. Incorporating contemporary artists solidifies this method, allowing students to work with ideas in their own way.
Art teachers share exciting assignments inspired by the work of contemporary artists such as Jihoon Ha, Susan Strazzella, Mark Bradford, Jeff Sonhouse, Susan Rothenberg, Arturo Herrera, and more. Students borrow photos from one another to create meaningful compositions, use clay to make elevated serving pieces, incorporate postmodern principles into mixed-media self-portraits, and much more.