Session 1: American Genius: An Artistic Celebration of America’s Birthday

We’re having a great first week celebrating American artistic genius!

Day 1 – Field Trip!

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We started the week with a trip to the National Gallery of Art to see works by some of the artists we would get to know this week and make a few other special stops.

Our first stop was at the fountains in the National Gallery West Wing, where the kids got to warm up their drawing muscles and break in their sketch pads, items I encourage them to use to continue using to draw the world around them long after camp ends. The kids were immediately taken in by the space and created some wonderful drawings of the flora and fountains.

To set the stage for how the artists whose works we would see changed art, we next looked at the exhibit of early 20th century American Artist George Bellows who documented America’s urban life through his paintings and prints as America transitioned out of the Victorian era and into the modern age. A remarkably gifted painter, Bellows trained his eyes and talents on the rawness of urban life. That focus on social reality was a shift from the main stream of the art world at the time, but his techniques and focus on painting scenes still placed him within the larger traditions of nineteenth century art, in substantial contrast to the artists whose works we are exploring this week.

To emphasize that transition, we took a trip through the National Gallery’s very own time machine: the “light tunnel” installation by Leo Villareal called “Multiverse” that runs underground between the older works in the National Gallery’s West Building and newer works in the East Building.

In the West Building, we saw work by a number of the artists we’ll be engaging this week, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns and Alexander Calder. We went to see a series of three paintings of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit flower by Georgia O’Keeffe, each painting moving the viewer closer and closer into the center to examine the beauty of the structure until we were so close that what had seemed very concrete in the first painting had become a very abstract field of color in the second and third. By looking at O’Keeffe’s flowers, we learned the new ways that she saw beauty in the world and how she altered altered how we look at the world around us. We also practiced her observant eye and used watercolor pencils to draw one of O’Keeffe’s flowers.

Nearby the O’Keeffes was a room of Jasper Johns’s paintings. Jasper Johns used masterful painting techniques but painted simple everyday things – numbers, targets, maps, and flags – and elevated what we usually think of as mundane into art. Like O’Keefe, Johns had a genius that changed the way we see things around us. (The Johns room also offered us a little intrigue. When we arrived the entrance was roped off. We were able to see the paintings, but not get close. When we asked why, the guard paused, then told us it was “classified”!)

In the East Building we also took the chance to look at some original small works by Alexander Calder. We visited a room that is one of my favorites in the entire National Gallery because of the many smaller works of wire sculptures and mobiles by Calder and studied the shapes and forms he created. The kids loved capturing the forms and shapes in their notebooks, and did some really wonderful drawings that will be a good foundation for actually making sculptures later in the week.

If you haven’t visited the Calder room, please have your kids take you!

There were two other little sidetrips from our theme of American artists that we took. The first was to see the room of joyful Matisse cutouts on the East Building cutouts. The other was to see the most fascinating collection of hand sculptures. Hands are for some reason particularly difficult for artists (and thus young artists often draw people with their hands behind their back!), and so dropping in to do our daily drawing practice in a room full of hands seemed to good an opportunity to pass up.

Here are the children, in good hands!

Special thanks to Diane Crawford-Batt for sharing her kindness and energies as a trip leader through the 100 degree heat! Thanks also to our campers’ parents for supporting our field trip to the National Gallery!


Day 2 – Georgia on My Mind.

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On Tuesday, we immersed ourselves in the world of Georgia O’Keeffe. We started the day reading Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodríguez (author) and Julie Paschkis (illustrator), which tells how O’Keeffe found her vision in closely engaging the shapes and light of the environment around her, talking about the O’Keeffe paintings of flowers and a shell that we had seen at the National Gallery of Art the day before, and looking at photos of additional O’Keeffe works.

Our first O’Keeffe project of the day was to use our powers of observation to draw a detailed close-up of a fresh flower using oil pastels. When we draw a flower from memory or draw a field of flowers, we tend to see shapes or large blocks of color. By drawing flowers from real life on Tuesday morning, we learned how many variations there are in flowers and how much rich detail they contain. We recognized that what looks like a solid block of yellow ovals in our memory or a field of orange from a distance is when viewed up close actually a full palette of colors and tones and has many fascinating and varied structures. We saw, for example, that hydrangeas are actually made up of dozens of small flowers arranged in groups. We even found out that these structures even make flowers feel different. Cone flowers have hard prickly spikes at their centers, while most other flowers are soft.

In the process of drawing the flowers, we also learned a lot about using oil pastels, which look a little like traditional crayons, but have more oil mixed with the wax base to create much more intense color and make them easier to blend together.

After our first project, we take a break each morning to run around outside to play and recharge our creative juices. Before the break, we talked about how many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings were of individual objects that she found in the natural world, and how she often would collect items on walks in New Mexico to contemplate and use as subjects in her painting. Then after our break on Tuesday, we took our own walk and collected natural objects to understand better how O’Keeffe took the things that we ordinarily might overlook and transformed them into subjects of great interest or beauty.

When we got back to our studio, we illustrated and painted our collections using watercolor pencils on watercolor paper and were able to see how the everyday can become the extraordinary. Watercolor pencils are a wonderful medium that can be used dry to make beautiful pencil drawings, but then can be blended using water and a brush to give really lush colors and a gradual gradation of tones. It also seems to generate a lot of smiles!

We finished out our studio time on Tuesday trying our eyes and hands putting together everything that we learned by doing portraits of flowers using acrylic paints on canvases mounted on boards. We first read Georgia’s Bones by Jen Bryant (author) and Bethanne Anderson (illustrator), which talks about how Georgia’s love for the shapes in nature and her passion for collecting “common objects” from the natural world (like we had earlier in the day) fueled her commitment at a young age to becoming an artist. Our artists at camp took her passion to heart and made some beautiful work that showed real attention to detail.

Day 3 – Happy Birthday, America!

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Wednesday started with looking at works by Jasper Johns and talking about how he, like Georgia O’Keeffe, transformed common objects through his paintings into uncommon ones. Rather than looking at the natural world, though, Johns looked to manufactured objects (like flags, maps, and targets) or concrete symbols of abstract ideas (like numbers). We had seen several Jasper Johns works on our field trip on Monday (even if from behind a rope because of the project the guard described to as “classified” taking place in the room). However, being July 4th, the first Jasper Johns project we of course did had to be American flags!  In doing our flags, everyone tried to be mindful of Johns’s careful techniques and thickly applied paint and the way he elevated the flag and other everyday objects from the common to the exceptional by making them subjects worthy of his immense artistic talents.  In the end, we had quite a show of American spirit!

Each day after our first project and after some time outside playing we do drawing time as part of our morning activities. On Wednesday, we talked about how everything you try to draw is just a combination of straight lines and curvy lines, and how just like in soccer you practice your individual foot skills that you later use in combinations in a game, in art it helps to practice drawing the individual lines and curves in various patterns so that they are easier and familiar when you are doing complete drawings or paintings. So each day at camp we are exercising our powers of observation and training our drawing muscles to do the things that our eyes see by drawing patterns from pictures.

After lunch, we took on another Johns challenge, his target paintings. Johns later on began to do other things with his targets like including faces and other body parts in relief above the target images, but we talked about the basic idea of whether a simple set of concentric circles could be art. Everyone painted her or his own target, and we got some surprisingly diverse results that show just how much there is to explore about color and composition and helped us to understand why Johns continued to explore this motif for so many years.

Then later in the afternoon, we explored the work of another artist with a unique American vision, Romare Bearden. Bearden was unique for the subject matters that he chose and for his frequent use of collage as a medium. Bearden was born in North Carolina but lived much of his life in New York. In his work he celebrated and examined the American experience of many African Americans in the middle of the twentieth century, setting his work and telling and interpreting the lives of these Americans living in both the rural South and northern cities. Reflecting Bearden’s own examination of the communities in which he lived, we did collages that depicted our own communities and what was important to us about them. Everyone had her or his own unique vision and (to varying degrees!) were eager to show them off.

We finished our day with by returning to a theme from earlier in the day in the form of a special July 4th tribute to Jasper Johns. One of the characteristics of Johns’s work was the thickness with which he applied paint and gesso, often onto unconventional media such as newspapers applied to boards. Inspired by Johns, but not to be outdone, before lunch we worked as a group on another flag project, the thickness of which would have impressed even Johns. At lunch, we baked a vanilla sheet cake. Then, just before our afternoon outside sprinkler time at the end of the day, each child “painted” their own piece in a red, white and blue sea of strawberries, Cool Whip, and blueberries of their own design. This was one art piece that didn’t last long, however. We of course couldn’t resist testing our creations – and, boy, were they good!


Day 4 – The Artistry of an American Architect

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On Thursday, we looked at the art of Frank Lloyd Wright. We started the day talking about and looking at photographs of houses and other buildings that Frank Lloyd Wright designed. We learned that one of the things that made Wright unique was his desire to create an architectural style that reflected America itself. He believed strongly that buildings should reflect their surroundings, so he designed long, low buildings with flat roofs to be built on the prairie. This revelation prompted quite a discussion by the group about the exterior design of their own homes.

Wright also tried to integrate artistic elements into his designs. One of the principal design elements in several of Wright’s California buildings was the use of “textile blocks,” precast concrete blocks imprinted with geometric patterns or with designs reflecting the environment where the building would be. Usually, these designs were geometric we learned, but one of his earliest designs incorporating pre-formed concrete structures also made use of stylized Hollyhocks, a local flower of which the home’s owner was enamored. To understand how simple design elements used in construction could be works of art themselves, we made plaster blocks imprinted with geometric designs made from pressing shapes in patterns into the wet plaster. After two days of drawing and painting, the more tactile process of mixing plaster and pressing patterns into it was quite fun, and everyone was amazed at how the consistency of the plaster changed minute to minute. We think we’ve produced some beautiful results! Like Wright’s, the finished products are monochromatic, but their lack of color variation will emphasize the wonderful geometric design created by each child.

After playing outside, we next thought about another common architectural element – windows – as art. Windows, which Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as “light screens,” were important elements of his designs. They oftentimes were abstract representations of certain elements.  We looked at several of his window designs including his “Tree of Life” window in the Martin House in Buffalo, New York, and the clerestory windows from the Avery Coonley Playhouse in Riverside, Illinois, which were abstracted from the balloons, confetti, and American flag of a parade. Earlier in the day we had practiced drawing some of the patterns in Wright’s designs during our drawing session. Now each child made her or his own light screen designs using Sharpies on watercolor paper. As you can see, we created some beautiful pieces!

After lunch, we looked at one more Frank Lloyd Wright design element, the cantilever. Cantilevers were used frequently by Wright, and they are the most dominant visual element of one of Wright’s most famous houses, Fallingwater, in southwest Pennsylvania. Cantilevers are basically structural elements supported on only one end and so jut out into space. Wright used cantilevers to make a striking visual statement at Fallingwater of rooms and decks floating in space above a waterfall. This of course requires not only artistic vision, but also some engineering smarts, and we made use of both. First we used wood blocks to experiment with various configurations to make our cantilevers strong and striking. Somehow this did not seem a sufficient test of our skills, however, so after we changed into swimsuits to get ready to play in the sprinkler outside, we broke out graham crackers and vanilla frosting and made some edible cantilevered “Fallingwaters” as well.

Day 5 – Calder and His Amazing “Mobile” Apps.

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We ended the week as we began it, with the help of Diane Crawford-Batt, who today started us off by talking us on a journey through one of the books from her wonderful art book collection, this one about the final American Genius we would meet this week, Alexander Calder.  While living in Boston, Diane had the experience of watching Calder install at MIT one of the enormous stationery sculptures he called “stabiles,” which usually were composed primarily of large sheets of steel inter-cut with one another, and she shared that experience with the children.

Calder from an early age loved to make things with his hands, and we confirmed quickly that our young artists did, too!  Calder is of course particularly famous for creating mobiles as art, which can be found in the National Gallery of Art both hanging in the main open atrium of the East Building, and in the special Calder room of the East Building that we visited in our field trip on Monday.  There also is an enormous eight-story high Calder work titled “Mountains and Clouds” that combines elements of both mobiles and a stabile across the mall in the atrium at the Hart Senate Office Building.

Our first project of the day was building mobiles from wire and pieces of colored foam.  Building artistically and mechanically successful mobiles requires some experimentation and a little mathematical intuition about size and distance to get the mobile to balance as you envision it.

The children were eager and naturals at finding the balances that they wanted.  Like Calder’s own works, they learned that with the proper balance and the individual pieces suspended by the wires, it took minimal wind currents to put the sculptures into motion.  It was quite amazing to see their bright colors all suspended from the ceiling or on their pedestals moving!

After a break to explore the garden at Maury Elementary and kick a soccer ball (the teacher fortunately escaped with minimal bruising from being in goal!), we returned to camp and watched one of the now less-remembered aspects of Calder’s work, but the one for which he first became famous and one of the most fascinating aspects of his career: his life as the creator, impresario, and ringmaster of his own miniature circus.

We began our visit to Calder’s circus by virtually attending a performance of “Le Cirque de Calder” through the short twenty-minute film “Calder’s Circus” directed by Carlos Vilardebo, which you can see here (at least for now) and read about here.  The children, as I always am, were amazed and enthralled.  The film is basically an abbreviated performance by Calder of his circus.  It’s quite remarkable!

To learn more about how Calder’s circus came about, we then read a wonderful book called Sandy’s Circus by Tanya Lee Stone (author) and Boris Kulikov (illustrator).  It tells the story of how Calder built his miniature creations from wire, and with his engineering prowess made wild animals, a lion tamer, a strong man, chariots, trapeze artists and more move and come alive in a miniature ring, all of which Calder performed to rave reviews in shows on both sides of the Atlantic.

After lunch, we tried our own hands at making miniature wire figures like those in Calder’s circus and making some of Calder’s stabiles.  It was a lot of fun, and it was a great joy to see the ability the kids demonstrated in using wire as a medium to create.  Although we’ll have to wait for another session to consider how to engineer them to move the way Calder did, the kids did a tremendous job imagining and creating miniature people and creatures from wire.

Then, after a final celebratory run through the sprinkler, we closed out our week with our camp gallery opening!  It turns out the children are also wonderful curators.  Everyone took part in hanging the pieces of art we had made during the week or making signs describing the art.  Jake shared some delicious chocolate from Hershey Park that he brought especially for the class.  It was quite the celebration for our own American Geniuses!