African American Artists: John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and more
As educators and parents we all know about famous European painters such as Van Gogh, Picasso and Degas. But what about renown artists of color who greatly impacted not just the international arts world but left a powerful legacy for or children to glean rich academic AND so valuable life lessons from?
They are plentiful. We just have to, intentionally, turn the pages to them. And as I decided to pursue these treasures of multiethnic artists, yes I had to dig a little deeper to find and compile materials for children on these amazing artists. But the hunt was worth it! Meeting these great men and women changed not just how we viewed art but inspired us and encouraged us in our life journey. Read bellow what we learnt about and from some outstanding African American artists this Fall!
So every year we intentionally take a few weeks or months to study Artists of Color. This year we actually started the school year right off with an entire 3 months series on several world renown African America artists and it was one of the best decisions I made. We learnt so much not just by studying renown artists works but the lessons their life stories taught. Each of the artists had his or her unique gift set, artistic style and life experinec marked by immense challenges and great victories. One unspoken thread throughout all the books were: yes life will hand you those proverbial bitter lemons but you can use them to create beautiful canvases of paintings and sculptures that will not just make your life but the entire world around you (and beyond) a better place! And no one in this world is exempt from this gift to turn pain, suffering and injustices into something beautiful, stunning...
I was so excited to dive head on into arts this semester that I unofficially started introducing my students to some of the artists during our summer break already. As much I'm a firm believer in leisure-overflowing do-nothing summer breaks, I (overachiever, overenthusiastic teacher) was this year truly ecstatic to start a new series on art. Especially when I realized that our current life and community is so full of diverse and artsy people with whom we can discuss our observations and collect new ideas!
So, this year from August to mid October every week is dedicated to studying the life, art and contributions of one African American artist. And it's been so deeply enriching so far.
And now my honest and funny reason behind starting our year off with a focus on at least 8 famous artists already and not waiting for a few months:
This year we are attending a home coming weekend at HU, a historical black university. And yes while I'm fine with attending a football game on Saturday and eating BBQ I am absolutely THRILLED about the opportunity to visit the University's Museum of Art Wednesday through Friday! To enter a museum that features one of the LARGEST collection of the very artists we are studying!
So far we studied John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Charles White and this week Elizabeth Catlett. We will continue with Henry Ossawa Tanner, Sculptor Augusta Savage and more.
Honestly, I can't wait for my kids to enter the doors of the beautiful historic museum and stand in awe of the huge paintings, impressing sculptures and gigantic murals created by all those artists that they had fallen in love with during the past few months. In my mind I can see my 5-year-old exclaiming "Mama, mama! Look! John Biggers' dying soldier!!!" (And yes, in my mind I can see heads shacking in disapproval of exposing little minds to such a horrific theme:)
So since I dropped that "dying soldier" bomb, here a side note on this topic:
(: yes, in our studies of manifold paintings we did include a few that had more serious topics. But I always try to make sure it come with age appropriate explanation. So no, I don't shy away from telling my students that war is a reality in this world and that it has been for thousands of years. Same with slavery. And yes I do touch on the painful realities of soldiers and slaves. But we also (and even more so) talk about the hope and strength to overcome hardships in daily life and how to use ones giftings (such as art) to document and work towards a better world.
So far my approach to art work has not caused any nightmares and I could tell my students were able to understand some more serious topics now. Moreover I believe those very pieces of art have actually stretched their minds, hearts and imagination for solutions.
For example as we studied the time period in which Biggers observed and documented the poverty and isolation in urban Philadelphia, my students were moved to compassion. And they were able to draw connection to people such as the homeless, mentally ill people and city transplants they may have encountered in their daily lives.
Now through observing closely these paintings they began developing empathy and understanding that these people may be having a hard time connecting in the urban context or getting lost in its anonymity. I will never forget the moment one of my children saw a homeless person and was moved to throw him a birthday party just so he would be celebrated, make friends and receive gifts.
During our Artists series I loved seeing my students observing Jacob Lawrence's life and paintings during a time of depression (historically and mentally) and discussing how for many people sudden fame may not just be a blessing but could also be difficult to emotionally navigate if there isn't a stable support system in place.
We also loved Lawrence's "builders" series that so positively emphasized the interconnection and importance of people of all backgrounds working together. My 5-year-old was inspired to paint a picture using Jacob Lawrence's unique painting technique using our specific context and titled it "the builder" just like his famous series. Once again I realized, children understand far more of this world than we think and are capable of providing better solutions to its problems than we do sometimes...
My life and my students' life clearly got enriched by making the acquaintance of these African American artists who so beautifully overcame internal and external obstacles and left us a legacy to ponder.
If you are interested in doing such a study on African American artists with your students as well you, I'm planing to make the materials we put together available for download in a link bellow. It includes teaching tips, discussion guide, easy hands on painting activities (for each artists style), picture studies and historical time table. You can easily use this for elementary or even older students and adjusted to however long you wish to study each artist and how in depth you chose to go.
I'm planing to repeat this series in about two years and just go deeper and provide more challenging essay assignments with each level of comprehension. Of course you can also just get some of the books and just begin by reading the beautiful stories of these exemplitary artists' life's!
I would suggest spending about a week (4-6) days on each artist to fully dive into his or her life. Bellow I'm putting some links of our favorite books on African American artists!
Happy painting and art viewing!
The books that we used are listed below.
Ps: To purchase some or all of the books we used in ourAfrican American artists unit please click on the links bellow!
By using this affiliate link I receive a small percentage which helps with the maintaining of this blog. Thanks!
Here is our unit on John Biggers and Elizabeth Catlett. You can purchase them as bundle or separately!
California based Ghanaian-German educator, writer, bookworm and mama of three. A lover of all things nature, diversity & healthy.
"Education is nothing else than discovery.
And discovery full of diversity is beautiful."
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About the author
My name is Nancy. I'm a teacher, home educator, wife, mother, writer and accidental German-Ghanaian transplant to the U.S., in love with California and all things diversity.