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Learning how to draw means learning to see. A good art lesson teaches us not only to create but to look at, think about and understand our world through art.

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Monday, February 15, 2016

The Harlem Renaissance


My 6th, 7th and 8th grade students at Samuel E. Shull Middle School in Perth Amboy New Jersey learned about the artist Aaron Douglas and the poet Langston Hughes as part of a unit on black history and the Harlem Renaissance. The assignment was to find a Langston Hughes poem that spoke to them personally and to generate a list of all the imagery from the poem. Then, using that imagery, students were asked to create an illustration using the visual art skills they had developed from studying the paintings of Aaron Douglas. Since Hughes and Douglas were friends, I said to my students; "Imagine you are Aaron Douglas. Your good friend Langston Hughes has asked you to illustrate one of his poems. Which poem would you pick and how would you bring it to life through your painting?"

The students used the website Poem Hunter to find their selected poem. Many students spent several class periods just reading poetry and taking notes before they began their paintings. 
I deliberately did not give them a shortened list of Hughes poems to choose from, opting instead to have them search through over one hundred Hughes poems to find just the right one. The experience of being a 'Poem Hunter' enabled these middle schoolers to create art that they felt connected to. They were no longer just fulfilling an assignment for a grade. They were creating something that was authentic and personal.

Student Art Gallery
DREAMS
Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die 
Life is a broken-winged bird 
That cannot fly. 
Hold fast to dreams 
For when dreams go 
Life is a barren field 
Frozen with snow.
by Langston Hughes


 
At the feet o' Jesus,
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo' mercy
Come driftin' down on me.



At the feet o' Jesus

At yo' feet I stand.

O, ma little Jesus,

Please reach out yo' hand. 


Ku Klux Klan
They took me out
To some lonesome place.
They said, "Do you believe
In the great white race?"
I said, "Mister,
To tell you the truth,
I'd believe in anything
If you'd just turn me loose."

The white man said, "Boy,
Can it be
You're a-standin' there
A-sassin' me?"

They hit me in the head
And knocked me down.
And then they kicked me
On the ground.

A klansman said, "N*****,
Look me in the face ---
And tell me you believe in
The great white race."
-By Langston Hughes




Merry-Go-Round
Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can't sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There's a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we're put in the back—
But there ain't no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where's the horse
For a kid that's black?
By Langston Hughes




Trumpet Player

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
where the smoldering memory
of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
about thighs



The negro

with the trumpet at his lips

has a head of vibrant hair

tamed down,

patent-leathered now

until it gleams

like jet-

were jet a crown




the music

from the trumpet at his lips

is honey

mixed with liquid fire

the rhythm

from the trumpet at his lips

is ecstasy

distilled from old desire-




Desire

that is longing for the moon

where the moonlight's but a spotlight

in his eyes,

desire

that is longing for the sea

where the sea's a bar-glass

sucker size




The Negro

with the trumpet at his lips

whose jacket

Has a fine one-button roll,

does not know

upon what riff the music slips




It's hypodermic needle

to his soul

but softly

as the tune comes from his throat

trouble

mellows to a golden note 


Love Song For Lucinda
Love 
Is a ripe plum 
Growing on a purple tree. 
Taste it once 
And the spell of its enchantment 
Will never let you be. 

Love 
Is a bright star 
Glowing in far Southern skies. 
Look too hard 
And its burning flame 
Will always hurt your eyes. 

Love 
Is a high mountain 
Stark in a windy sky. 
If you 
Would never lose your breath 
Do not climb too high.

by Langston Hughes


Illustration for Wisdom and War
By a 7th grade student 

Wisdom and War
We do not care- 
That much is clear. 
Not enough 
Of us care 
Anywhere. 
We are not wise- 
For that reason, 
Mankind dies. 
To think 
Is much against 
The will. 
Better- 
And easier- 
To kill.

by Langston Hughes

We created a video of student artwork using recordings of Langston Hughes himself reading his poetry aloud:



Below is my art lesson, in it's entirety.

Aaron Douglas





The biographical information included here on Aaron Douglas may be read it's it entirety by following this link:

Aaron Douglas was an African-American painter and graphic artist who played a leading role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.
Arriving in New York in 1925, Douglas quickly became immersed Harlem's cultural life. He contributed illustrations to Opportunity, the National Urban League's magazine, and to The Crisis, put out by the National Association for the Advancement Colored People. Douglas created powerful images of African-American life and struggles, and won awards for the work he created for these publications, ultimately receiving a commission to illustrate an anthology of philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke's work, entitled The New Negro.






 Douglas had a unique artistic style that fused his interests in modernism and African art. A student of German-born painter Winold Reiss, he incorporated parts of Art Deco along with elements of Egyptian wall paintings in his work. Many of his figures appeared as bold silhouettes.

In 1926, Douglas married teacher Alta Sawyer, and the couple's Harlem home became a social Mecca for the likes of Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois, among other powerful African Americans of the early 1900s. Around the same time, Douglas worked on a magazine with novelist Wallace Thurman to feature African-American art and literature. Entitled Fire!!, the magazine only published one issue.



With his reputation for creating compelling graphics, Douglas became an in-demand illustrator for many writers. Some of his most famous illustration projects include his images for James Weldon Johnson's poetic work, God's Trombone(1927),



 and Paul Morand's Black Magic (1929).



In addition to his illustration work, Douglas explored educational opportunities; after receiving a fellowship from the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, he took time to study African and modern art.

Douglas created some of his best-known painting in the 1930s. In 1930, he was hired to create a mural for the library at Fisk University.






The following year, he spent time in Paris, where he studied with Charles Despiau and Othon Friesz. Back in New York, in 1933, Douglas had his first solo art show. Soon after, he started one of his most legendary works—a series of murals entitled "Aspects of Negro Life" that featured four panels, each depicting a different part of the African-American experience. Each mural included a captivating mix of Douglas's influences, from jazz music to abstract and geometric art.

http://exhibitions.nypl.org/treasures/items/show/170

Watch the video below and fill out the worksheet as you are watching.









How do each of the images below exemplify his artistic style?
What message do you think he was trying to convey through his paintings?
















Click here and here for more information 
about the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes


















Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. He published his first poem in 1921. He attended Columbia University, but left after one year to travel. Hughes published his first book in 1926. He went on to write countless works of poetry, prose and plays, as well as a popular column for the Chicago Defender. He died on May 22, 1967.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents, James Hughes and Carrie Langston, separated soon after his birth, and his father moved to Mexico. While Hughes’s mother moved around during his youth, Hughes was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother, Mary, until she died in his early teens. From that point, he went to live with his mother, and they moved to several cities before eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio. It was during this time that Hughes first began to write poetry, and that one of his teachers first introduced him to the poetry of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, both whom Hughes would later cite as primary influences. Hughes was also a regular contributor to his school's literary magazine, and frequently submitted to other poetry magazines, although they would ultimately reject him.
Hughes graduated from high school in 1920 and spent the following year in Mexico with his father. Around this time, Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" was published in The Crisis magazine and was highly praised. In 1921 Hughes returned to the United States and enrolled at Columbia University where he studied briefly, and during which time he quickly became a part of Harlem's burgeoning cultural movement, what is commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance. But Hughes dropped out of Columbia in 1922 and worked various odd jobs around New York for the following year, before signing on as a steward on a freighter that took him to Africa and Spain. He left the ship in 1924 and lived for a brief time in Paris, where he continued to develop and publish his poetry.

















Hughes's Harlem home, on East 127th Street, received New York City Landmark status in 1981 and was added to the National Register of Places in 1982. Volumes of his work continue to be published and translated throughout the world.
 How could you use Aaron Douglas's painting techniques; the simplified silhouettes, colors. halos and sense of space to create an illustration for a Langston Hughes poem? 
 
Start out by drawing an outdoor scene with many layers going from foreground to background.  Use overlapping to further create a sense of depth. Use simple outlines so that all the shapes look like silhouettes. Draw a series of concentric circles  starting at the focal point and radiating out. 
 Make sure that your picture depicts the setting you imagine in the poem. You may go to http://www.poemhunter.com/langston-hughes/poems/ to find a poem of his that you would like to illustrate or you may use one of his poems provided by the teacher.

Color the foreground dark and add increasing amounts of white to lighten each subsequent layer as you go back towards the horizon. Make the smallest of your circles (at the focal point) the lightest color and make each subsequent circle progressively darker, as pictured below.











 When you are finished painting the landscape, add dark human silhouettes. The silhouettes in the foreground should be bigger and darker in value, while the figures in the background should be smaller and lighter in value. Make sure that the figures in the picture are doing whatever you imagine the characters in the poem to be doing.



Below is a simplified graphic animating these steps.



Here are some poems by Langston Hughes. The first one, Dream Deferred, is read by an actor. The second two, Merry-go-round and Ku Klux Klan, are read by Hughes himself. Both Douglas and Hughes used their respective art forms to convey their experiences as African American men.


What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?


by Langston Hughes


Merry-Go-Round
Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can't sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There's a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we're put in the back—
But there ain't no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where's the horse
For a kid that's black?


Ku Klux Klan
They took me out
To some lonesome place.
They said, "Do you believe
In the great white race?"
I said, "Mister,
To tell you the truth,
I'd believe in anything
If you'd just turn me loose."

The white man said, "Boy,
Can it be
You're a-standin' there
A-sassin' me?"

They hit me in the head
And knocked me down.
And then they kicked me
On the ground.

A klansman said, "N*****,
Look me in the face ---
And tell me you believe in
The great white race."
By Langston Hughes

Here are some other Langston Hughes poems that might inspire you: 

DREAMS
Hold fast to dreams 

For if dreams die 

Life is a broken-winged bird 

That cannot fly. 

Hold fast to dreams 

For when dreams go 

Life is a barren field 

Frozen with snow.

by Langston Hughes

I Dream a World

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!



The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes 
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
      flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippiwhen Abe Lincoln
     went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.




As students began to find poems and read them to me, I created videos featuring the text of the poems and audio, downloaded from iTunes, of Hughes himself reading his work aloud and shared them with my classes:









Skills I introduced to my students through this lesson:
I spent three class periods on skill building exercises before the class even began their final paintings. I created the videos below and use them whenever I need to teach these particular skills to a class:

1) Creating tints

Aaron Douglas created concentric halos starting at the focal point of the painting and radiating out. The halos in his paintings are lightest at the center and become progressively darker. Before you begin painting, practice creating tints of color by adding white.






















How can asking students to illustrate a poem help them to become not only better artists but better writers? 

Studying writing that evokes clear visual imagery and invites readers to explore the imagination, like the Poems above, is key to helping students become both better artists and better writers. 

Resources:
The art/writing connection
How to Be a Better Writer: 
6 Tips From Harvard’s Steven Pinker


Quotes from the Time Magazine article linked above:
"Our brain works a particular way; so what rules do we need to know to write the way the brain best understands?
 Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard. He’s also on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.
Steven was recently ranked as one of the top 100 most eminent psychologists of the modern era."
His number one piece of advice:
"Be Visual: One third of the human brain is dedicated to vision. So trying to make the reader “see” is a good goal and being concrete has huge effects."
"We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from “I think I understand ” to “I understand ,” we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…"
A key element to 'close reading' is inviting students to explore the visual imagery that a well written poem evokes in their minds. One way to explore this visual imagery is to draw it.  

At the University of Pennsylvania, freshman students are taught how to do 'close readings' of classic pieces of literature. 
Here is one piece of advice they are given their freshman year: 
"METAPHORS and IMAGES:
 Make a mental list of the images that pile up in passage.
 How do these metaphors or images affect how you read?"

The Helpful Art Teacher says; why not create that 'mental list' by illustrating a passage with a beautiful drawing? Students can demonstrate how closely they have read by including as much detail as possible





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