Possible Classroom Concepts: Social Studies – Presidential Portraits, African American History, State Flowers, Language Arts – Symbols , Mathematics – 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!