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Art as Historical Document

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"The Migration Series" by painter Jacob Lawrence chronicles the exodus of African Americans from the rural south to the industrial north in the years after World War I. The first thing that strikes you about Lawrence’s Migration paintings is the small scale of each panel. Hung at an adult’s eye level they mimic windows, evenly patterned fenestration. Both of those features, the size and the window-like quality, speak volumes about the 60 paintings that comprise Lawrence’s essential work. In scaling down the panel-cum-portholes into visually manageable paintings, Lawrence not only allows the viewer artistic access by virtue of being readable and understandable, but he magnifies their thematic significance by contrasting the diminutive compositions with the enormity of the subject matter: The Great Migration. 

On a fieldtrip to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) last month, students in the oldest class had the opportunity to view Lawrence’s rarely exhibited masterwork and find personal meaning in his powerful vision and skill. As the culmination of a month-long art class study, the museum excursion allowed Katie’s class to experience firsthand Lawrence’s work, themes, style, methods and life story. In the weeks previous to our trip, we approached the historical topic from numerous perspectives. 

Beginning with a rich discussion of the concept of migration, we connected the present to the past, bridging current global movements with our country’s African American history. We read Lawrence’s biography and discovered the relevance of migration to his family history, and along with it the importance of personal narrative as inspiration for artistic activity. Our understanding of the socio-political context deepened through our visual analysis of several paintings by Lawrence, positioning the class to take on the next step – informed artmaking.

Launching the art production phase was a storyboard exercise leading each student to illustrate a part of the migration narrative by developing an original composition in the style of Lawrence. We critiqued and revised our ideas, refining our pictures so they address a key concept: that the formal elements of art serve to amplify an artist’s message. To this end we focused on Lawrence’s expressive style and learned about his bold, spare palette and simple yet powerful forms. Our work times in art class were accompanied by the poetry of Langston Hughes and big band jazz from the Basie and Ellington 1930’s songbook. 

After 14 years at The Little School, I continue to be awed by our students’ capacity for deep contemplation, perception and engagement. On our museum visit day, as SAM docents led our class through the Migration Series gallery, students had the opportunity to fully integrate brainwork with eyework as they came face to face with Lawrence’s original paintings. The looking, talking and writing components of the art gallery experience amplified our artist study in ways only possible through museum-curated exhibitions. One student summed up the experience in this powerful poem: “Education, coming North, education, working for money, education, writing answers, education, living hard, education, asking questions…”

May 6 is your chance to celebrate the artistic expression of our school at the Art Festival! Immerse yourself in creativity at the Student Art Gallery, a very special showcase of original art work by our own artists!


More pictures from this experience can be found at