Art History with Hand Puppets

By MacCormick, Lili | School Arts, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Art History with Hand Puppets


MacCormick, Lili, School Arts


If you were a child, wouldn't you rather talk with an artist about his or her paintings than talk with your teacher? I guess you would, and so would my art students, from kindergarten through grade four.

My own special interest is in art history and the way that looking at and learning about the art makes a period of history come alive.

Observing that my students are interested in personalities that they know about, such as sports heroes, I reasoned that I could share with them my delight in art by introducing them to artists and their work. If I can interest them in the lives and personalities of famous artists, then I am contributing to their cultural literacy and sense of history. And by focusing on one artist at a time, I can use the many art reproductions that I have collected over the years from museums, calendars, and postcards to teach students to look at art and become familiar with famous paintings.

Card games that I have made using the little reproductions in museum catalogues further reinforce this familiarity, as well as sets of Aline Wolfe's "Mommy, It's a Renoir" art cards, which I keep available in the artroom.

Artist-of-the-Month

And so I began my Artist-of-the-Month program with puppets. Each month I choose a different well-known artist, seek out biographies, portraits, and self-portraits, and create a hand-puppet as a likeness of the artist-or at least as much as I am able! This is the fun part--getting to know the artist by reading about him or her, collecting art reproductions, and, finally, making the puppet.

At the beginning of the month, I cover the bulletin board with reproductions of the artist's work; then, at the opening of every initial class meeting for that month we welcome the artist, who introduces himself (for example) with "Bonjour mes eleves! Comment ca va? Je suis Pierre Auguste Renoir." They look blank. "What? You do not speak French ?"

"Do you speak English?" They nod eagerly. "Well, then, I must speak English. I said, "Good morning! How are you? My name is Pierre Auguste Renoir." His dates appear under his name on the bulletin board, so this leads naturally to a short history and math lesson. How long ago did he live? How old was he when he died? Sometimes this must be worked out on the chalkboard. A map helps to locate Paris, France.

A Visit from Pierre Renoir

Then Renoir might tell about his early apprenticeship hand-painting dishes in a china factory, and later, when the factory closed, of his friendship with other young artists. He tells about them breaking the rules by painting out-of-doors instead of in their studios, helping to organize a special exhibition of paintings by young artists, and about the terrible things the critics said about his paintings. They compared them to paint-rags and called him and his friends "Impressionists," which was meant to be an insult. Perhaps he will tell them about his family, and about the arthritis that crippled him as he grew old, so that he had to have his paintbrush strapped to his hand. Yet he painted till the day he died, at age seventy-eight.

We will look at his paintings together. What are they about? Can you tell that they were painted out-of-doors? How can you tell? What about the colors? And so forth. In this way, I have found that art history, criticism, and aesthetics can flow quite naturally through conversations between the artist-puppet and my art students.

After twenty to twenty-five minutes, Renoir will sign off with "Au Revoir, mes amis," and the students will respond (with a little coaching, of course) with "Au revoir, Monsieur Renoir," and we will return to our own art projects.

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