Journeys through Art: Tracing the Great Migration in Three American Paintings

By Johnson, Jamie W. | Art Education, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Journeys through Art: Tracing the Great Migration in Three American Paintings


Johnson, Jamie W., Art Education


INSTRUCTIONAL

RESOURCES

For Students in Grades 4-6

"If you're any kind of artist, you make a miraculous journey and you come back and make some statements in shapes and colors about where you were." -Romare Bearden

Romare Bearden

Goals: Students will learn about the history of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North while discovering how artists create narratives through formal devices by examining paintings by Horace Pippin, Walter Ellison, and Archibald J. Motley, Jr. They will also create their own works of art focusing on journeys.

Introduction

African Americans have been displaced frequently-and often forcefully-throughout the history of the United States. African slaves were transported to colonial America in record numbers beginning as early as the 17th century. Though slaves were freed by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, African Americans still faced discrimination and danger in the South because of racist attitudes supported by the Jim Crow laws. Beginning in the 1920s, many African Americans left poor rural areas of the southern United States and headed north to industrialized urban centers such as Chicago and New York, where jobs and greater freedom beckoned. It is estimated that approximately 2 million African Americans moved between 1920 and 1925 alone, while during the entire migration, between 1920 and 1970, more than 6 million people relocated.

One result of this migration was the outburst of music, art, and literature by African Americans, including artist Aaron Douglas, musician Duke Ellington, writer W.E.B. Du Bois, poet Langston Hughes, and writer Zora Neale Hurston-a movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning in New York City's Harlem neighborhood in the 1920s, this exploration and expression of African-American life soon spread to other urban areas such as Chicago's Bronzeville, a traditionally African-American community on the South Side, and influenced generations of writers.

Three paintings in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago together relate the story of the Great Migration, from South to North, country to city. Horace Pippin, in his Cabin in the Cotton, makes visual his grandmother's stories about life on a cotton plantation in the rural South at the time of the Civil War. In The Train Station, Walter Ellison, who migrated from Georgia to Chicago as a teenager, depicts the beginning of the journey from the South to the North, as African Americans board trains to northern destinations. Finally, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., represents the vibrant cultural life of African Americans in Chicago during the Jazz Age in his painting Nightlife.

Depictions of daily life in the United States appear frequently in the art of the 1930s and 1940s. Regionalist artists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton depicted life in the Midwest, while Edward Hopper focused on urban life. Meanwhile, the Works Progress Administration's Federal Arts Project (WPA/FAP), a program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's domestic reform aimed at saving America's cultural heritage, encouraged artists to represent the places and experiences they knew. More than 5,000 artists between 1935 and 1943, including Motley and Ellison, were paid to depict the U.S. scene in paintings, sculptures, murals, prints, photographs, and posters. Pippin similarly chose to paint "from his heart and mind" (May, 1997, p.40).

In addition to depicting a particular history in the United States, these paintings also demonstrate different ways artists utilize formal elements to create narrative. Color creates rhythm and movement in a scene, as well as contributes to mood. Une organizes the composition, creates depth, and contributes to the rhythm of the paintings. Symbols, texture, and pattern are other tools of these artists. By exploring these paintings, students learn the tools to depict their own histories and journeys. …

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