I researched contemporary artists and discovered the work of African American painter Jeff Sonhouse (b. 1968, New York). Sonhouse creates large, realistic paintings using colorful patterns and burnt matches for hair. His work was perfect for covering so many things in my middle-school curriculum – line, shape, color, pattern, and form.
Left: Aspen O. Right: Jeff Z.Left: Kadence B. Right: Luca S.Left: Stella M. Right: Adelle S.
After twenty-two years of teaching elementary art, I needed a change. My school district was switching from a K–6 model to K–5, with an amazing new middle school being built. Art teachers were needed, and I threw my hat in the ring. I was thrilled to get the job but concerned as well. I’d never taught middle school before—I had been teaching elementary for my entire professional life.
The spring before my new job was to start, I went to the National Art Education Association Convention in New York City and attended every middle-school presentation I could. I made many notes in my phone. I remembered from my studies that middle-schoolers are very interested in themselves and their peers. When the school year started, I revisited my phone notes and decided to start with the theme of identity.
Inspiration from Artist Jeff Sonhouse
I researched contemporary artists and discovered the work of African American painter Jeff Sonhouse (b. 1968, New York). Sonhouse creates large, realistic paintings using colorful patterns and burnt matches for hair. His work was perfect for covering so many things in my curriculum—line, shape, color, pattern, and form.
I presented examples of Sonhouse’s work and discussed his background with my seventh-grade classes. Then we reviewed basic facial proportions and drawing techniques. Using mirrors, students drew their eyes, nose, and mouth. Then they used colored pencils to add other features, making their portraits as realistic as possible.
Next, students created a patterned mask for their faces based on their hobbies, feelings, and interests. Some students struggled with ideas, so we brainstormed lists as a class and students drafted possible patterns in their sketchbooks. They drew their patterns in pencil first and colored them with markers. Students then added their shirts and a background with markers or colored pencils. Some students decided to incorporate their interests into their backgrounds as well.
The final step was the hair. I demonstrated simple paper quilling techniques such as rolling, curling, and pinching. Some students struggled with gluing the paper on its edge, so there were many reteaching moments. We quickly realized we needed more brown, black, and yellow paper—having multiple classes with eighty students working at once quickly depleted our supplies.
Students completed a form that included a title for their work, an artist statement with a few sentences about their work, and a list of the media they used. Many of the portraits were on display at one of our local libraries and we received positive feedback from the community. This project was successful for all students, which is what art teachers want! I would do this project again because it helped me to feel confident about teaching middle-school students—and I got to learn about each of them in the process.
Aimee Fresia is a middle-school art teacher at Lee’s Summit R–7 School District, Missouri. Aimee.Fresia@LSR7.net
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
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.