Everyday Workers

Possible Classroom Concepts: Social Studies – Community Helpers, Careers

Possible Art Concepts: Art History – Lewis Wickes, J. Howard Miller, Winslow Homer, Shauna Frischkorn, Gordon Parks, Ramiro Gomez, Gustave Blache, William H. Johnson

Art Genres – Portraits, Art Medium – Painting, Drawing, Photography

While watching last week’s Sunday Morning Magazine, I discovered that the Obama’s are not the only ones adorning the walls of the National Portrait Gallery right now.  “The Sweat of Their Faces; Portraying American Workers Exhibit” has many exciting  relatable images which would make a great addition to a community helpers or careers unit. There are some famous historical works such as Lewis Wickes’  “Icarus High up on Empire State“, J. Howard Miller’s Rosie the Riveter and Winslow Homer’s “The Cotton Pickers”. However, what I really love are the images that your students can really identify with and recognize from their everyday lives. Images such as Shauna Frischkorn’s “Kean, The Subway Sandwich Artist”Gordon Parks’ “Government Charwoman”Ramiro Gomez’s “Woman Cleaning Shower in Beverly Hills” and Gustave Blache’s “Cutting Squash”.  I also love Francis Criss’ “Alma Sewing”.  

I’ve adapted a career lesson from Mrs. Knight’s Greatest Artist’s  that can be found  here. You can use the above mentioned artworks as motivation. Brainstorm different community helpers or careers. The Sweat of Their Faces exhibit also has a William H. Johnson portrait who Mrs. Knight mentions in her lesson. It is entitled  ” Farm Couple at Work”.  Look at the simple shapes Johnson uses to create his figures.


Then, using a black crayon and simple shapes, students draw a career self portrait. Next, they add props and a background.


Just like Johnson, the students will paint in the shapes with bright colors. I used watercolors. The black crayon keeps the colors from running together. If you don’t have watercolors, crayons or markers will work just fine.

Hope this post brought you some fresh visuals for your social studies units. How do you teach community helpers or careers? I’d love to hear. Simply click on the post’s title and scroll down to the comment section. If you like what you’ve seen here, please feel free to toss me a “like” or better still become a follower.

Thanks so much for reading. Hope you’ll stop by again real soon!

Let Me Count The Ways!

In my last post I talked about Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits. Through this blog, I try to show little ways visual arts can be incorporated into your everyday teaching. Today, I would like to take one work of art and see just how many ways it could be used in the classroom. So this time I’ve chosen to use Barack Obama’s portrait again. I hope you don’t mind.

  1. Social Studies Presidents Unit: The most obvious use of this painting is to study it as a presidential portrait. Presidential portraits date all the way back to Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington . Most presidential portraits emulate this very first portrait. How is Obama’s portrait the same or different from Washington’s? Both men are depicted as a full length portrait. The men are both painted realistically. Washington is standing and Obama is seated. Stuart’s portrait has a very formal background of an office, whereas Wiley places Obama in a patterned background of leaves and flowers.                                                                        While researching this portrait, I discovered some pretty colorful stories behind other presidential portraits. Check out some of those stories here.
  2. Famous African Americans Unit: Our first African American president commissioned an African American artist to paint his portrait. Kehinde Wiley is most famous for painting an individual every day African American man, dressed in contemporary clothing, but in classic painting pose. A number of his paintings have a flower patterned background like Obama’s portrait. Wiley has incorporated more traditional backgrounds in his recent series, Tricksters, featuring contemporary African American artists. He even includes Nick Cave who I recently blogged about here. I particularly love his newest series,  In Search of the Miraculous, some of which were inspired by  Winslow Homer’s island seascapes.      Back when Obama was first elected president, I introduced my students to another African American artist named Jacob Lawrence. Lawrence has created several painting series about African American history, including ones about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and The Migration. I asked the students to create a painting depicting some memorable event from President Obama’s election or life. Find a few results below.

  3. Language Arts Lesson/Symbols: I talked about this in my last post. Visit here if you missed it. Above, I talked about Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. He also used some symbols in his painting. Read about the patriotic symbols he used in this Mental Floss post.
  4. Mathematics/ The Number Three, Counting, Pattern: Have the students I Spy the three different types of flowers found in the portrait’s background. How many of each can they find? Which flower is painted the most?  Students could graph the information. Talk about the fact that, yes, this is a pattern (flowers and leaves are repeated), but an irregular pattern.
  5. Science/ Botany:  Read what Popular Science has to say about the flowers in this portrait here.

I found five different subjects where you can use this one piece of art. Can you think of others? I’d love to hear about them. Simply click on the post’s title and scroll down to the comment section. If you like what you’ve seen here, please feel free to toss me a “like” or better still become a follower.

Thanks so much for reading. Hope you’ll stop by again real soon!

Patterned Portraits

Possible Classroom Concepts: Social Studies – Presidential Portraits, African American History, State Flowers, Language Arts – SymbolsMathematics – Pattern, Science – Botany (Flowers)

Possible Art Concepts: Art History – Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Art Elements and Principles – Pattern, Symbols, Positive/ Negative Space, Art Genres – Portraits, Art Medium – Quilting, Printmaking, Painting, Collage

The amazing official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were recently unveiled. These portraits have generated long lines and much positive attention. So much attention that the portraits were moved to a larger space in the National Portrait Gallery.

I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with the two African American artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald who painted these amazing portraits. Since I’ve researched their work, I’m obsessed.

Upon close examination of the two portraits, I’ve found several similarities and differences. Using a venn diagram, let’s investigate some of them.


 As you can see, both artists chose to paint their models in a seated position and both included an irregular pattern in their composition. Wiley placed his pattern in the background or in the negative space of his composition. Sherald placed her pattern on the dress or in a portion of the positive space. What I found most interesting were the hidden symbols found in the patterns. Wiley painted three different kinds of flowers   nestled among the many many leaves in his pattern. Each flower represents a place   significant in Obama’s life. The African blue lilies are a symbol of his father’s birthplace in Kenya. The white jasmine flower symbolizes Hawaii, Obama’s birthplace.  The chrysanthemum is Chicago’s official flower, the city he where Obama worked before  becoming president. Sherald chose this patterned dress for Michelle to wear because it  reminded the artist of quilts.  She mentions, in this podcast with The Jealous Curator, that quilting is an integral part of African American history. She also talks a bit about how the pattern’s images remind her of  underground railroad quilts and Gee’s Bend quilts.


These portraits got me thinking. A self portrait containing symbol patterns might be a great beginning of the year project to get to know your students.  It could also be an alternative to a family tree project where the students include flowers from the countries and states of their heritage. But, I ultimately decided to create a pattern portrait about my mother. (a GREAT Mother’s Day project for your students) I began by creating a pattern that symbolized my mother. I used erasers to stamp print my irregular pattern. Then, I created details with a fine marker. I used what I had around the house to print my pattern. However, for your students, you might want to use foam shapes hot glued onto corks or bottle caps as stampers. Or, perhaps the most inexpensive way to create a symbol patterns is fingerprinting. Ed Emberley’s Fingerprint Drawing Book has all kinds of ideas for animals, transportation, etc.  In a pinch for time, just Google Ed Emberley’s Fingerprint images. Don’t have enough stamp pads for your whole class? Find a simple stamp pad hack below.  I stamp printed this way all the time in my teaching days.


Mom was a creative and crafty person. So, my symbols were balls of yarn with knitting needles to symbolize knitting, crochet hooks to symbolize crocheting, a series of triangles surrounded by broken lines to symbolize quilting and hearts to symbolize all the love she shared with our family. I just so happened to have a childhood photo of my mother. And she’s actually seated in a chair. Once my pattern was complete, for one composition, I cut out the  chair and glued it onto the background, mirroring Obama’s portrait. For my second composition, I cut away the dress and glued the pattern behind the opening and then adhered the cutout chair onto a plain colored background reminiscent of Michelle’s portrait. You could have students bring in a photo of their mom from home or have them draw a portrait of their mom to use in their portraits. The portraits could also be the cover of a Mother’s Day card. Students could create a key of the symbols on the inside of the card, or even incorporate the key into a poem or limerick.

I think the Obama portraits could be interesting and inspiring to your students. Michele Obama’s portrait certainly was to this little girl. And what a bonus, learning about symbolism and a little African American history to boot. What do you think? I’d love to hear. Simply click on the post’s title and scroll down to the comment section. If you like what you’ve seen here, please feel free to toss me a “like” or better still become a follower.

Thanks so much for reading. Hope you’ll stop by again real soon!