february’s artist: njideka crosby

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby was born in 1983 in Enugu Nigeria. Her father was a surgeon and her mother was a professor of pharmacology at the University of Nigeria. They highly valued education and sent her and her 5 siblings to the best schools possible. At age 10, she was sent to Queen’s College boarding school (one of the best in the country) which was 9 hours away from her parents. A few years later, her mother was able to get green cards for her and her sister to study in America. They moved to Philadelphia where she took an art class while working on her undergraduate work for a medical degree. She did not get into the medical school she wanted to attend, but found that her interest had changed to art. She changed her course of study and ultimately received a Masters in Fine Art from Yale in 2011.

During her studies she met and married musical artist, Justin Crosby and had a son, Jideora, in 2016. In the last nine years, Njideka has won many prestigious prizes and fellowships for her art, including being named the artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem and was named a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.

Her primary mediums include collage, photo transfer, acrylic paint, charcoal, fabric, and colored pencil. She layers paint, with the collage elements to create an intricate scene that shows both a domestic moment and the biographical information that creates those moments. Njideka often portrays herself and family members in her work and uses copies of the photos her family has in their single family album. She says that this is her most treasured belonging. She also uses “portrait fabric” which is made for weddings, burials, campaigns or any important life events in Africa. This creates a complex story for each scene she paints. She lays out what she wants to do in an initial sketch, then chooses the media to add and problem solves how to best use it in the space. Crosby says it takes about 12 sketches to get to the final piece where everything is laid out well together. It is an incredibly time consuming process each painting takes an average of three month of daily, full time work.

Today we will create our own multimedia scene. You may want to pick an average moment from your life, maybe including family members like Njideka does.

1. Choose your scene and sketch it on the card stock. Go over the lines if needed to make sure they are fairly bold.

2. Use the magazine pages and scrapbook paper to add interesting elements to your design. Trim them to the size and shape needed then glue them down.

3. Now use the colored pencils and pastels to tie everything together and add in details.

january’s artist: leonardo da vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci was born on the 14th or 15th of April, 1452. Da Vinci refers to the town he was born in (Vinci, which is in the Florence region). His full name is Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci, which translates to Leonardo, son of Piero, from Venice. His father was a notary, which was an upper middle class position and his mother was a peasant woman. Because he was born out of wedlock he wasn’t considered part of the family and not much was recorded of his early life. Around the age of 14, he went to work in the studio of a local artist, Verrocchio. His studies included drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, and wood-work, as well as artistic skills like drawing, painting, sculpting, and modeling. He finished his apprenticeship and was accepted into Guild of Saint Luke, for artists and doctors of medicine around age 20. He continued to work and live closely with Verrocchio whom he admired greatly. (We know this from his extensive writings).

Around the late 1400-early 1500’s he worked primarily as a military architect and engineer, designing weaponry and defenses in Milan and Venice. In 1502 he created a map of the Imola region for Cesare Borgia (the son of the Pope and a great military leader). Maps were extremely rare at this point and it was this project that put Leonardo into a position of recognition. By 1503, he was back in Florence and working with the Guild of St. Luke again. This was when he began the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, which would become known as the Mona Lisa. He would continue to work on this piece for the rest of his life. Many people comment on Lisa’s mysterious smile, but there are many other reasons why this piece is so impressive. The background is an unusual mythical landscape, unlike anything Leonardo would have seen in his lifetime. Such inventive painting was never done in Leonardo’s time. Most importantly though, is his mastery of the sfumato technique of painting. This is a painstaking method of subtly shading to a very fine point. There aren’t any solid lines in the Mona Lisa; the edges are created with very precise shading. This gives everything, a well turned three dimensional feel.

In 1513, he was invited to Rome and was the guest of the Pope’s family (the Medicis) where Raphael and Michelangelo were both working. Here he was free to pursue anything that interested him, from gardening, to dissecting cadavers to write a treatise on how vocal chords work. It was during this time that historians think he had the first of a series of strokes that eventually lead to his death. However he was still prolific during this time; creating the plans for palace for King Francis I of France (he was one of the King’s favorite people). He also built a mechanical lion that walked toward the king during a ceremony, then when it was tapped with a special wand, the chest opened revealing a cluster of lilies. Reports of him becoming more ill, as well the loss of mobility in his right arm are recorded over the next few years. He died at Clos Lucé, France on 2 May 1519 at the age of 67, possibly of a stroke.

It is interesting that popular culture remembers Leonardo da Vinci most for his paintings because he produced relatively few painted works. Although he was among the first to use oil paint, which replaced tempera as the most popular medium in the late 1400s and continues to be the most common media for fine art. Da Vinci produced many, many more drawings. He was a skilled draftsman and came up with ideas for an armored tank, flying machine, hydraulic pump, crossbow, and parachute that inspired the real creations when technology finally caught up to his imagination. He even created his own mirrored, short hand “language” to write in. Even though he had little formal education growing up, he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and sought out answers to all of the questions that came to mind. It was his interest in so many different disciplines that made Leonardo da Vinci such a remarkable person and one of the greatest thinkers in history.

Today we will try thinking like Leonardo. Take a moment to think about what you do on a daily basis. What could you make to make life run more smoothly, make a job you don’t like easier, or just make your daily routine a little more interesting? Draw all of the specifications for your invention with any explanations needed written next to your drawings.

See what students can think of, then spend a little time letting the students share their ideas with each other.

december’s artist: helen frankenthaler

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Helen Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928 in New York City to an upper class family. Her father was a supreme court judge and her mother encouraged Helen and her two sisters to train for a career in any field they chose. (Which was somewhat uncommon for the era.) She attended several prestigious private schools and studied under well-known artists.

She married another artist Robert Motherwell in 1958. They were called “the golden couple” of art and were known for lavish parties and their place in both the social and art worlds of New York City.

With an art career that spanned over sixty years, Frankenthaler has had shifts in her styles, but her work is quickly recognized for it’s fluid and spontaneous feel. She described it as a simplified image on very large murals. She once said “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.” Helen was a part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. (abstract: not representational or depicting an easily identified subject and expressionist referring to expressing emotion) These artists felt that the viewer should be included in creating the meaning of the the piece of art. One painting could be interpreted many different ways, depending on the viewer and their response to the piece.

Later in her career, she began to join different areas together with blocks of color (referred to as fields.) She was one of the pioneers of the Color Field movement. She influenced artist like Mark Rothko, whom we studied last year. She also began to make prints and wood cuts in her later years.

Helen was often cited for being a successful woman in a field dominated by men. Even though there are more modern female painters, it was difficult for women to have a big impact in the commercial art world. Her work is unmistakably feminine; which she was sometimes criticized for. In a 1972 interview she said: “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue, I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”

Although she was generally a private person and preferred to stay out of the spotlight, Frankenthaler led the National Arts Endowment during a tumultuous time in the 1980s. She stopped the practice of liberal grants to very experimental artists which helped turn the trend in art culture away from the radical back more towards traditional practices. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2002. She died on December 27, 2011 at the age 83 in Darien, Connecticut.

Although Helen Frankenthaler worked primarily in acrylic paint (which is the thick paint we use when we paint canvases each year.) She thinned the paint drastically to give it the fluidity of water color. Today we will experiment with breaking an image down into it’s very most basic shapes and forms to make an abstract painting.

1. Show the students the picture I used for reference and my example and discuss how you can see the basic shapes even though the color is different and the form isn’t exactly the same. Ask the students if they can see the scene I was inspired by in the picture.

2. Now talk about how the students can take one of their favorite things or places and deconstruct it to create an abstract piece.

3. Use the watercolors to create fields and larger shapes of color, then add in details as you’d like with the smaller brushes and pastels on top.

november’s art: mosaics

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Mosaics has been used for decoration for over 4000 years. These oldest examples come from the Mesopotamian Empire (a region located in Modern day Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey). Many other ancient cultures decorated their temples, civic buildings and even the homes of the noble classes with mosaics on floors, walls and even ceilings. The earliest mosaics were made with bits of colored stones, glass and other materials.

Mosaic as an art form developed even further with the Greeks, who took the stones and pebbles and pushed them into clay to create more intricate designs. However, they reached a new high with the Romans, in Africa and Syria, the wealthiest Roman provinces. Beautiful floors have been found in Herculaneum and Pompeii. The mosaics in the Roman Empire featured domestic scenes, geometric designs and depictions of the gods in their pantheon.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, mosaics in the Byzantine era (which refers to the Eastern inhabitants of the Roman Empire that grew into it’s own civilization.) went from mainly floor decorations to beautiful and intricate wall pieces that depicted religious subjects. Until now, most mosaics adorned floors and so were usually made of colored stones that could withstand people walking on them. Because the Byzantines put mosaics on the walls, they could also use fragile materials, like mother of pearl, gold and silver leaf, and glass of different colors. Small glass tiles, (or tesserae) were placed at angles to catch and reflect the light, creating a sparkling, richly colored glow.

At the same time, further east in the Islamic world, mosaics were also developing, with stone and depictions of geometric figures and mathematical principals. The Islamic technique was slightly different. Artisans would carefully create tiles specifically for the project, handworking each tile to ensure a custom fit instead of choosing a stone or tile that fits well enough into the piece and working around it.

Today’s artisans and crafters work with stone, ceramics, shells, art glass, mirror, beads, and even odd items like doll parts, pearls, or photographs. While ancient mosaics tended to be architectural, modern mosaics are found covering everything from park benches and flowerpots to guitars and bicycles. Items can be as small as an earring or as large as a house.

Today we will use tesserae or small tiles to make our own mosaics. Because grout is messy and a little difficult to use, we will glue our tiles down and leave them ungrouted like the Byzantines. (Grout is a glue made out of sand that cements the tiles together.)

1. Pick a round or square board for your mosaic. Lay it down on top of a piece of wax paper to protect desks from glue and give you something to handle while the mosaic is drying.

2. Lay the tiles out on the board and arrange them to make a deign. DO NOT glue until you have figured out the design and have it exactly how you want it. The tiles can go off the edges a little, but you will want all of the tiles to have a good backing so they don’t pop off.

3. Pick up each tile and squeeze a good amount of glue onto the back, then carefully place it back on the board.

4. Pick up your whole project by the wax paper and carefully place it in the drying area your teacher recommends. They will be very fragile until the glue has dried. (They won’t be ready to take home until tomorrow.)

october’s artist: wassily kandinsky

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Wassily (Wassilyevich) Kandinsky was born on December 16, 1866 in Moscow, but spent his childhood in what is now Ukraine. He lived a comfortable, middle class life. His father was a tea merchant from Siberia, his mother descended from Mongolian aristocracy. Although he studied a variety of subjects in school, including economics and law, he often said that he was drawn to art and especially color from a very young age. He talked about noticing the colors of the landscape around him and feeling like he was stepping into a painting when he was a young boy. It wasn’t until he was thirty, however, that he left a thriving career teaching law to pursue art full time. It was slow to start. He wasn’t immediately accepted into art school so he worked on his own, taking classes where possible.

His early work was heavily influenced by Russian folk tales and often had themes from these stories as well as stories from the bible loosely depicted. Although his early work was much more representational (meaning it has an identifiable person, place. and/or thing) it was still somewhat abstract. Kandinsky wanted his view to focus more on the emotion they felt. He wasn’t traditionally religious, but he was deeply spiritual. To him, painting was a spiritual action and he wanted the view to be involved in creating the meaning behind each piece.

You can see this even more as his art quickly becomes more and abstract (meaning that you can tell exactly what it represents). He is considered to be one of the fathers of abstract art and the term ‘abstract expressionist’ (which would become more common in later years) was coined to describe his work.

Kandinsky was passionate about music and felt that visual art and music went hand in hand. He said “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul” He used color to show his emotion or response to the subject, rather than to describe what the subject looks like. He once said that he is trying to express his soul rather than represent the world. He believed in color as it’s own form, not as something that helps describe an object. He also used musical terms to describe his work. He called his most spontaneous paintings “improvisations” and described more elaborate works as “compositions.”

Although people had a hard time understanding his work during the first few showings, he became successful fairly quickly and was teaching art as well as painting in Germany when WWI started. He was targeted by the Nazis and many of his paintings were burned. After the war, he settled in France where he lived the rest of his life, dying of a stroke at age 78 on December 13, 1944.

Today we will experiment with line and color to make an abstract painting like Wassily Kandinsky. Instead of thinking of a picture that you would like to draw, think of a feeling. Do you want your painting to be happy or sad? Chaotic or peaceful? Kandinsky, like many other artists, felt that warm colors (Red, yellow, orange) showed energy and excitement. While cool colors (blue, green, purple) were calming and peaceful.

1. Play the CD on the art cart, tell the students to listen to the music and see if they can see what Kandinsky might have been trying to paint as they listen to “Titan” by Gustav Mahler.

2. Use the crayons to create the shapes on a piece of cardstock, make it as simple or complex as you’d like!

3. Use the watercolors to add color and interest. Observe how the paint doesn’t stick to the crayon. How can you use this to make interesting designs.

*Fast finishers are welcome to try more than one painting!

may’s artist: caravaggio

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Michelangelo Merisi de Caravagio was born was born on September 29,1571 in the small town of Caravagio, which is outside of Milan, Italy. His father was an assistant to a local nobleman and he grew up in a moderately comfortable life. However, Caravaggio lost both of his parents to plague during his teen years. After his mother passed away he became an apprentice with a painter in Milan. During this time, he trained in the Lombard style, which valued simplicity and attention to natural details. This would show in his work throughout his life. After his apprenticeship, he went to work in a factory like setting painting painting flowers and fruit for the work of a master. This was the common practice at the time, artists would work their way up from painting background details in a better known artist’s workshop until they had gained enough skill and notoriety to open their own studio. Although many artists never rose above this more craftsman like position. However, this was a great time to be a painter in Rome. The Catholic church was expanding rapidly and needed art to fill the new cathedrals and other buildings being constructed. During this time, he developed a dramatic style of lighting to create intense tension and emotion in his paintings. This style, called chiaroscuro, uses a very dark background with dramatically lit subjects.

Caravaggio was rebellious from the beginning of his study. Instead of the perfectly depicted gods of the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that apprentices faithfully reproduced, he would emphasize their humanity, playing it up to extremes. He infamously painted the god Bacchus (who was the god of fertility and wine-making, essentially the embodiment of the good life) as green and sickly. He painted David and Goliath, but put himself as the beheaded Goliath.

It is not hard to imagine that his contrary nature showed in his interpersonal relationships as well. He had many tumultuous interactions with other artists, especially during his apprenticeship years. He left Milan for Rome after getting into trouble for assaulting a police officer. Then fled Rome after killing another man in a brawl and being sentenced to death in 1606. For the next four years, Caravaggio lived in Naples and Malta (Which were outside of Roman jurisdiction and allowed him to evade punishment). He was knighted and briefly served in the Knights of Malta, but was imprisoned and expelled from the Knights for badly injuring another knight during yet another brawl.

Everywhere he went, Caravaggio was almost immediately successful, but his prideful manner and quick temper made it hard for him to stay anywhere for long. Hoping to gain a pardon from the Pope, He made his was back to Rome and died during the journey in July of 1610. There are varying accounts on what happened. He may have died from a fever, which he had complained to friends about having. Some experts feel it may have been the final stages of lead poisoning from his paints. Others feel that he was most likely killed in a fight or as revenge from the earlier incident with the powerful knight in Malta. However he died, Caravaggio’s influence on art was immediate and profound. He began a shift back to more natural and realistic proportions in art (At this time, the main school of art was Mannerism, which followed the Renaissance. The interest in ideal proportions was so exaggerated that figures often had elegant but very unnatural dimensions and form.) Chiaroscuro is a technique used frequently today to give weight to the subject of a painting and help move the viewer’s eye to what the artist feel is most important.

Today, we will try our hand at chiaroscuro. Think about a dramatic story or scene, then use the chalk pastels to capture it on paper. Set up the scene so that it creates a diagonal line of the most important information in the paper. (See how the shafts of light in Caravaggio fall in a horizontal line across the subjects. Use the light colors sparingly, so that the areas you want the viewer to focus on will jump from the page. You can blend the colors by gently rubbing in a small circle with a finger.

After the picture is complete, spray lightly, holding the can 6” from the paper to set the chalk.

april’s artist: jean-michel basquiat

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Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. His mother Mathilde was Puerto Rican and his father was an immigrant from Haiti. From an early age, Jean-Michel’s artistic talent was encouraged by his mother and teachers. He was extremely bright, speaking English, Spanish and French fluently by age eleven.

Although his family was middle class and he was highly encouraged, Basquiat faced plenty of adversity. When he was seven years old, he was playing stickball in the street and was hit by a car. He spent several weeks in the hospital recuperating from injuries (including a spleen removal from the damage.) His mom gave him an anatomy book and he spent much of his time drawing and learning about the human form. Many people felt that this is where his passion for art began. Later that year, his parents separated. He and his sisters lived with his father, while his mom spent time in and out of mental hospitals. She was a talented artist in her own right, but battled mental disease.

Jean-Michel was enrolled in a handful of prestigious private schools, but could not conform to the academic environment. At age fifteen he ran away from home and lived on the street, selling handmade postcards and tee shirts for income. His graffiti was recognized for it’s artistic potential and soon he was working with clothing brands, rap labels and t.v. shows. He met Andy Warhol (whom we studied last year) in a restaurant and almost immediately formed a bond. Warhol became and mentor and father figure to Jean-Michel. They collaborated together and ultimately Warhol was the one who was able to talk Basquiat into going to rehab when developed a rapidly growing drug problem. Sadly, he passed away a couple years later at age 28 of a heroine overdose. Jean-Michel’s life and career were tragically short. However, his work greatly influenced the post-modern art world. You can see the incorporation of old masters, impressionists and modern artists which he used to create something completely new. Many said that he wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of fame and money that came so young in his career. Others feel that he may have had emotional or psychological disorders of his own that he treated himself with alcohol and drugs. Even though his contribution to art spanned a short period of time, Jean-Michel was very important.

Today we will mix media (the supplies we are using) to create our own graffiti art.

1. Plan out and lightly sketch what you want to create.

2. Use markers first to create your picture. (You can layer pastel on top of the markers, but can’t draw on top of the pastel with the markers.)

3. Use the pastels to add areas of interest. These are great for creating bold highlights and bringing areas of the picture into the foreground.

march’s artist: vincent van gogh

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Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 into an upper middle class family, in southern Netherlands. He was the oldest of six children and very close with his brother Theo and sister Willemina. Van Gogh drew frequently as a child and was serious, quiet and introspective. These personality traits along with a fierce temper about his art and depression and alcoholism would make it hard for Vincent to succeed in an academic setting. He struggled through a few attempts at art school, but was known to battle with professors that did not understand his vision or tried to get him to conform to theirs. There is wide speculation on what mental and emotional disorders Vincent may have had, including severe depression, epilepsy and schizophrenia. Many think that he may have been autistic based on accounts from friends and family. Whatever conditions he struggled with, it was certainly made worse by severe alcoholism, smoking, lack of sleep and malnutrition. In his letters, he often described going days without eating and sleeping. He is the archetype of the tortured artist. Although he was never well appreciated for his work during his life (he only sold one painting) he is now one of the most recognizable and loved artists in history.

Vincent relied heavily on his brother Theo. After several failed career attempts that varied from mining to ministry work, Theo encouraged Vincent to pursue art full time. Theo Van Gogh was an art dealer, as were several others in the Van Gogh family; and he provided his brother with financial and emotional support throughout his life. For two years the bothers lived together in Paris; this was the time that Vincent remembered as the happiest in his life. The brothers also corresponded avidly. There are more than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo (who saved all of his letters) and around 40 from Theo to Vincent (who did not keep his.) Vincent did not seriously pursue art until he was 27 years old. Impressively, in the next ten years he would create over 2100 paintings, watercolors, and sketches.

Citing exhaustion from the busy pace of Paris, Vincent moved to Southern France, hoping to start an artists’ colony. It was during this time that he lived with the artist Paul Gauguin. The pair had a complicated and very intense friendship. Many heated debates led to the argument that ended in Van Gough slicing off a part of his ear with a razor. There are many conflicting accounts of how the incident played out; but none from Vincent, who could not remember the event afterward. He was diagnosed with an acute mental breakdown and checked into a mental hospital. He spent the next year in hospitals until he passed away from an infection after shooting himself in the chest.

Today we will paint like Vincent Van Gogh. Usually, I recommend starting with the background and working in layers, to the little details at the front. However, using Van Gogh’s style, we work directly, all prima. (Which means that we will finish the painting in one sitting working in one layer.)

1. Start by lightly sketching out your design on the canvas. You want to make the lines barely visible so that you don’t end up with graphite in your paint.

2. Using, thick strokes, paint several colors close together. Look closely at Van Gogh’s paintings. You will see trees that are green, but have yellow and purple brushstrokes side by side. The combination of colors will make your painting more interesting. Areas where you put similar colors will harmonize. If you want to make something in your painting really stand out, you can mix contrasting colors, (Red/green, blue/orange, purple/yellow, etc.) These areas will really catch the viewer’s eye.

3. Before finishing, go back and look at your piece. Are there areas that need a little refining? You might especially want to outline objects to make sure they stand out against the background and have a solid form.

february’s artist: yayoi kusama

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Yayoi Kusama was born on March 22, 1929 in Matsumoto Japan. Her family was upper middle class and very conservative and strict. Yayoi has often recounted that she did not have a happy childhood or live in a happy home. At age 13, she was sent to live and work in a military factory to sew parachutes for the Japanese army. From age 10, she suffered from acute anxiety attacks. She remembers hallucinating polka-dots that would swallow up everything, including herself. This is why polka-dots have such a strong presence in her work. She has lived side by with her mental illness, knowing it is an important part of who she is as well as her art. This may be why she so often creates a space for viewers to be swallowed up in her art and see it more from her perspective.

Kusama works in many media. She paints, sculpts, and creates installations combining different media. She has also made films, done live performance art pieces and even designs clothing. Often she creates an installation for her sculptures and paintings to be viewed within a mirrored room that gives the art an infinite and encompassing quality. Most of her work has symbolic meaning. For example, the polka-dots she uses so frequently reference her anxiety and sense of self. Pumpkins mimic the human form, she says. She uses them also as an alter-ego self portrait. She described her “Infinity Nets” paintings as “a curtain between me and other people.”

Over the years, Yayoi has been associated with several art movements, but her work can’t easily be defined by any one movement; which is part of her genius and appeal. She has won several important awards, including the Praemium Imperiale award from the Japanese Imperial family. She is the only female Japanese artist to have been given this award and is widely thought to be one of the most important artists to come from Japan.

Today we will use Yayoi Husama’s sense for bold patterns and color to create our own mixed media work. Tell students to start thinking about what they want to create while you show them the materials we have to work with. Once they have their idea in place, they can follow these steps:

1. Choose a color of card stock and lightly sketch out your design. Decide where you want to use fabric scraps and up to 4 of the embellishments in the box. (I often remind the students that we have lots of friends to share with. There are more than 500 kids that will do this project!)

2. Add color with the pastels next, get your picture how you want it and then you will be ready to glue down the fabric, etc. I think it’s helpful to color over the lines of where you want the fabric, just in case you cut it a little bit smaller or differently than you were planning.

3. Lay the fabric down on the are where you want it and draw the shape you want it cut into the fabric. Then cut it out and glue it on.

4. Touch up the color with the pastels if needed. Finally glue down the buttons/flowers, etc.

january’s project: african tribal masks

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Tribal masks have been used for hundreds of years by many of the Sub-Saharan African tribes (some dating back to 7000 BC). While they are appreciable as vibrant and skilled art. This is not their main purpose. They are for use in important ceremonies and rituals, usually revolving around weddings, funerals, initiation rites, and such. The masks aren’t meant to be perfectly accurate representations, but to show the essence of the spirit, person or animal portrayed. Often specific traits are featured to convey a message. For example, to represent power, masks may have antelope horns, crocodile teeth or the fangs of a warthog. Calmness and patience is conveyed through half-closed eyes, a small mouth and eyes represents humility while mask that represents wisdom has a wide, bulging forehead. A large chin represents power and strength. Animal features are often included. The most common are buffalo, hyena, hawk, crocodile and antelope. Antelope is one of the most widely used animal masks. It symbolizes agriculture and is worn to enable better crops. Horns represent growth of millet, legs roots of the plants while ears represent songs that women sing in the harvest time. Symmetrical lines and geometric designs show dignity and integrity. Highly polished surfaces represent youthful healthy skin and reflect the idea of beauty and virtue, while rough dirty surfaces suggest fear and evil.

Each mask has a specific spiritual meaning or represents a specific spirit and often several are used in any ritual. The mask is believed to have a spiritual power and the wearer is transformed, merging with the spirit of the animal portrayed when dancing in a ceremony or ritual.
The mask artist has a high rank in the village because it is believed that they have contact with the spirit world and their skill is not just artistic, but spiritual. Their training may last many years and can be as an apprentice in the workshop of a master carver. However, most often these skills are passed down from father to son through many generations.

Masks are made from wood, pottery, textiles, copper and bronze. Details could be made from animal teeth, hair, bones and horns as well as feathers, seashells and even straw and egg shells. Wood is the most common material because it is plentiful and many African tribes believe that the tree has a spiritual soul and it’s wood is the most natural home for the spirit in the mask. The larger and more detailed the mask, the more important the spirit it is meant to represent.
During the late 1800s, tribal masks became very popular among Europeans and directly affected the schools of art that emerged during that time. The Fauvists (Edvard Munch that we studied last year), Cubists (Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque) and many of the Impressionists incorporated the colorful, more expressive design of these African artists. Today African tribal masks are a popular art commodity, although many now are made for commercial purposes and don’t have religious significance.

Several West African tribes also used small masks as passports. Warriors and travelers from various tribes would wear a small (3-4”) mask on a band around their arm or neck to show what tribe they belonged to. A passport mask could also show what their purpose was (such as a messenger, hunter, or warrior.) They also were believed to provide protection to the wearer.

Today we will make our own passport masks. Think about the characteristics you would like to display and carefully carve out or pinch basic features into your mask.
1. Distribute 1 clay ball for each student on a small paper plate. Have the students write their name on the paper plate before getting started. Warn students that air dry clay is very brittle when completely dry. Small or thin parts sticking out are unfortunately likely to crack or break off, so it is best to keep things pretty simple.
2. Work on your paper plate to create your mask. If there are cracks, they can smoothed with wet fingers. This kind of clay works best when it it doesn’t get too wet or overworked though, so focus on carving out what you want to with the tools or pinching out small areas. Adding clay to mask often ends up cracking, but you can try to add larger details by making a crosshatch on each of the areas that will be stuck together.
3. After the basic features are made on the mask, use one of the hook tools to carefully carve the excess out of the back, leaving the clay at around a half inch thick. (This is definitely better in this case.)
4. Gently paint some details with the paints. You will want to press very lightly with the paint brush so that it doesn’t carve into the clay.
(Because painting is secondary, I would recommend sharing a paper plate “palette” between 2-4 students. Just squeeze small puddles of paint onto each plate and then add more as needed.)
5. Leave the masks on the plates to dry.

*A few more things to consider:
-Please be careful to keep bags sealed so the clay balls don’t dry out.
-Please let me know if supplies are running low. This is one that we can’t really load everything on the cart for the month. My number will be on a post-it on the cart a text that we need more will be super helpful! 😉

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