A Journey into Native American Painting

By LiPira, Michael | School Arts, October 1997 | Go to article overview
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A Journey into Native American Painting


LiPira, Michael, School Arts


As an art instructor of junior high students at a government boarding school on a Navajo reservation, I weave many aspects of Native American culture into my curriculum, while incorporating a broad exposure to world art as well. One of my favorite units is painting. Since the conception of Dorothy Dunn's Santa Fe Indian School, now the Institute of American Indian Arts, a tradition of Native American painting has evolved and encompasses many styles and forms of expression. I do not secularize the painters by tribe, but rather approach the study of Native American painting by style and content. Many of these artists compete with other world class artists in both talent and scope and have become role models for the students.

Getting Comfortable with Paint

Prior to beginning a painting unit, the students will have completed general units in drawing, color theory, paint mixing, and paint manipulation. They become familiar with brushes and paint (tempera and acrylics) via practice worksheets. Then they create various examples and work out techniques of manipulating paint on inexpensive white copy paper in an experimental environment. I demonstrate various techniques -- such as hard edge, blending, and Pointillism -- and show a masterwork painting that uses each technique. My main objective is to get the students comfortable with ways of mixing and applying the pigment.

Learning From the Artists

I begin the cultural aspects of the painting unit by showing the students a video on Native American artists that includes Helen Hardin, R.C. Gorman, and Fritz Scholder at work creating a painting. There are many such videos available from PBS and other sources. In the videos, the artists talk about their approach to the medium and their ideas about subject matter. I then question the students on what type of painting style each artist uses, and solicit questions and comments regarding how they feel about each artist's work.

Next, I take a full class period for a slide show of Native American paintings. I group the paintings into three predominant styles: Hard Edge; Blended; and Monochromatic. In the hard edge group I show pieces by Quincy Tahoma, Harrison Begay, Andrew Tsinnijinnie, Narciso Abeyta, Fred and Michael Kabotie, Pablita Velarde, Alan Houser, and Justin Tso. In the blended group I show pieces by R.C. Gorman, David John, Fritz Scholder, Ray Yazzie, Mary Morez, Dan Namingha, Bev Doolittle, and George Longfish. In the monochromatic group I show pieces by Fred Beaver and Jerome Tiger.

As my knowledge of Native American painters increases, so does the selection of works I present to the students. In my discussion of the paintings, I give the students a historical time frame, and question the students on the stylistic variations, color harmony, and themes/ symbols that are visually explored by the artists.

Most of my students have at least one artist in their immediate family or clan, and I encourage them to share information about what that person does.

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