“This is art class – we’re not supposed to read!”
Our high school art students are sometimes perplexed by what they view as a dichotomy: that art can be informed by the words of others.
Working with pen and ink, our first semester concludes with the curricular “Big Idea” of Narrative. Until this point, our curriculum heavily emphasizes observational drawing, so there is a need to design a learning sequence forming a bridge between observational skills and a more interpretive approach to art making. Designed and illustrated by students enrolled in Oak Park High School’s year-long 2D Medias art course, this edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven is a unique graphic experiment in book illustration. Learners discovered they had to immerse themselves not only in the archaic language of the nineteenth century, but also had to research and explore the richly symbolic nature of this poem, transcending two centuries of visual literacy in order to translate the written word into surrealistic line drawings.
The Learning Sequence.
We begin by creating a fanciful three-dimensional structure, a sort of “light modulator” that when lit creates a variety of cast shadows, unusual openings, and imaginative shapes. (See side bar for this single-class activity.) Working with paper sculpture is a great way to “take a break” from drawing and helps learners to think quickly about how to problem-solve creatively and in collaboration.
The result is a large sculpture, centrally located in the art room. Artistic learners set up lighting, develop sketches of the most interesting sections, and take reference photographs. Reference photographs are converted to black and white so that learners can better visualize the range of values present. The focus at this point is to develop a strong composition based upon a single, emphasized section of the sculpture. As with any publishing venture, the pages of our book are determined by the publisher. Our artistic learners work within those restrictions to focus on developing a strong 10 x 8 inch composition.
At this stage, the composition is lightly sketched out in pencil. Sketches are both observational, as well as somewhat abstract in nature due to the subject matter and the selectively close up cropping. Student decisions about formal compositional qualities are emphasized.
It is only at this time that we introduce the narrative: Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, The Raven. In order to illustrate the various segments of the poem, learners must first gain greater understanding of its meaning.
We begin by listening to an eerie reading found on YouTube. Using scripted questions and questioning strategies, we tease out some of the more obscure language for discussion.
Students are grouped and assigned smaller, bite-sized chunks of text to analyze, and making use of the ever present and ubiquitous Smart Phone, we assign several three-minute “research challenges.” We ask learners to quickly research such questions as “What is ‘the night’s Plutonian shore?’” and “What does ‘seraphim’ look like?” The strategy of making this a short, cell phone-based challenge works well, and keeps students engaged. Discussion turns to speculation about what phrases and words are symbolic – and especially with regard to their symbolic meaning. We also discuss and characterize the ways in which The Raven might be interpreted as “surreal.” Learners make inferences – for instance:
- What words stand out? Make a list.
- Quick online research: You’ve got five minutes. Find out if any of your words are symbolic. What do they symbolize?
- What other symbolism do you note?
- What visuals do the words suggest?
Collaborative discussion is important. As a group, we decide to include such Surrealist symbolic elements as windows, doors, and openings; these are added into each student sketch. Individually, learners must consider:
- What do you think your assigned text means?
How might you depict these symbols and ideas visually? Roughly sketch out at least three symbolic visuals.
How might you incorporate these symbols into your foundation drawing?
Learners are assigned specific stanzas, and from our earlier discussion about the poem they develop rough sketches that visualize several of the symbols present in their section of text. These visualizations are then merged into the 10 x 8 inch composition, very often achieving the irrational or dreamlike appearance that characterizes both Surrealist artworks and the language of The Raven.
Students use their sketches as a “base.” Using a translucent inking vellum, the finished illustrations are traced and then inked. This material allows student artists to easily fix inking errors and make corrections, and to continue to add, move, or delete compositional elements. We begin with guided practice using dip pens on scraps of the vellum, along with a refresher about the variety ways of mark making to visually represent texture. Learners are encouraged to develop the type of expressive mark making that could later be included in the finished illustration.
The proliferation of online publishers such as blurb.com make it easy for students to quickly evolve into published illustrators. And because our end product will be published and available in our district library system, the rigorous reality of publishing becomes truly relevant: Not only must students “front load” their understanding of the text, they must also engage in a very real process of proof reading, scanning, prepping, and sequencing a collaborative work meant for an audience.
Mark Alan Anderson is the North Kansas City School District Visual Art Coordinator, and teaches Drawing, Design, Photography, and AP Studio Art. He is a past MAEA Secondary Teacher of the Year.
Jaime Curtis teaches Drawing and Photography. She is currently working toward National Board Certification.
Oak Park High School is one of four high schools in the North Kansas City School District, located in Kansas City, Missouri.