Friday, January 19, 2018

making meaning with jean-michel

The 3rd graders are starting their color and chalk pastel unit by looking at the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat for inspiration. This activity allows students to focus on meaning in art and gives them opportunities to experiment with themes that are important to them. 

I have always loved the boldness and the energy of his work. There is a rawness to it the captivates me. I know his work can be difficult to approach with students, but I encourage you to give it a chance.

We start out by looking at a couple photographs of Basquiat at work, so the students can identify with him. We talk about how his parents were immigrants- his father was from Haiti and his mom from Puerto Rico. At Zamo, we have a diverse population and many of our students have family members that have come to the US from different countries. We all know the political climate today, and I think it's so important to recognize the positive impact immigrants have had after they and their children have established themselves here.

We then look at three paintings that Basquiat created. I ask the students if art needs to be pretty or beautiful all the time and they have responded with a resounding NO in each class. We talk about how art can convey different feelings by how things are drawn or depicted and I ask them to keep this in mind as we look at his paintings.

In the first one we focus on his use of large areas of background color and the presence of a portrait in the painting. We agree that the portrait is not realistic, and that we still recognize it as a face. The second one leads us into a discussion of symbols and how they can convey meaning to the viewer and that we may "read" the meaning of those symbols differently than one another, depending on the experiences each of has had. Students see that he has used a crown in both paintings. I bring up the fact that Basquiat used those to signify his importance in the art world. He was visually establishing and connecting himself as part of an art royalty.

Students also notice the amount of words used in the second painting. They recognize Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. I point out Miles as Miles Davis- the amazing jazz pioneer and how Basquiat was deeply moved by jazz, blues, and hip hop, rap, and experimental forms of music. They also notice Frank and the fact that we don't know who HE was, but the name/person had significance to Basquiat.

We look at one more painting and notice another crown, more connections to money and commerce, more bones, including a skull and teeth.

Before getting started with the hands on portion of the activity, I remind students that we aren't copying his work, but we will be borrowing his methods for constructing his art and his use of symbols and words to create meaningful self portraits.

Step one is to create a gestural abstract background with 2-3 colors that are important to them. We apply color with the side of the chalk, working to keep elbows up in order to keep the color from smearing. After adding the background, students can add areas of white to lighten colors and they can smooth areas as well. I encourage them to find a balance between smooth and rough areas.

Next come the symbols- I ask them to add 2-4 personal symbols. These are things that have importance to them- they could connect to family, school, hobbies, sports, etc. We use the point of the chalk to add these elements. I encourage students to hide or obscure symbols if they aren't satisfied with how they are drawn or if they want some messages hidden in their work.

The portrait element is the 3rd step. Again, I emphasize that the portrait does not have to be perfect. We are aiming to give the viewer an idea of ourselves. I put Basquiat's paintings back up to see and I also let the kids know that if they have a certain way of drawing people/characters, that they can use that style as well. We draw the portrait in chalk and then go over it in oil pastel to give the lines more clarity. This also connects to how Basquiat used large oil sticks to create lines, symbols, and words in his work.

Finally, come the words. Students add a few words that connect to family, heroes, friends, etc. We talk about text as a visual element. Do they want to use all capital or lowercase letters? Do they want to mix them up, do they want some words to read upside down?

Then, it's time to clean our mess up;)

Next week, I plan on having the students reflect on the process by having them do a short written reflection on choices that they made throughout the activity. 


  1. Using your lesson for inspiration this week. Thank you!

  2. Is this Auggie P from Galloway schools? Because if it is you taught me like 30 some years ago. I am currently working on some,art you taught me techniques for back then. Started talking about you and decided to Google your butt and here we are.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing the progression of your lesson.

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  6. This is leading to the best class discussions. Thank you!

  7. His mother was born in Brooklyn. Matilde's parents were from Puerto Rico.

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