Wood Spirits: African American Folk Art Roots

Article excerpt

I teach at a historically Black University. As I work with African American art education students, I am constantly reminded of the need to bring about awareness of their cultural heritage.

Creating Meaning

First, one must address the need to develop a sense of cultural heritage. The African American traces her or his roots to the African Continent, where traditional imagery was based on the abstracting of forms to express ideals, rather than on the realistic portrayal of things.

Second, the American experience of Blacks has been, until recent times, to gain acceptance as artists by mimicking the mainstream "white" majority. Historically, the development of African American imagery has been suspect in a country that assimilates its citizens into the mainstream, or it is associated with particularly Black cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance. For minority art teachers, overcoming history is not as important as accepting and acknowledging it, and moving forward with a correct perception of the multicultural nature and traditions of American art.

Third, cultural bias, particularly in education, has resulted in a belief among many African American students that they actually cannot compete with other students. For them the traditional educational experience is irrelevant. A noncompetitive experience is called for here in which the student can create meaning through her or his expression, without "rules" of grammar, punctuation, and so on.

To create such an experience, we designed two projects focusing on African American folk art traditions, African design motifs, a "no fail" outcome, and the possibility of personal realization.

Bringing Out the Spirit Within

From a friend and fellow teacher, Sandra Eccles, I got the idea of creating animate characters by painting pieces of found driftwood. Sandra had created the idea of "wood spirits" for her own work, and had adapted-the technique for use with public school students.

Sandra's directing is straightforward: 1. Locate driftwood with interesting nubs, twists, bumps, and other "personality" characteristics. 2. The wood must be cleaned, stripped of any remaining bark, and primed. 3. The wood may then be painted with tempera, oil-based colors, or acrylics to "bring out the personality of the spirit found within."

I have found that living near a lake or a river makes finding driftwood a fairly easy task, and students enjoy going out and looking for their own special piece with which to work. But, if driftwood is not available, well-dried branches and roots from dead trees can work just as well. Indeed, twisted vines, which have died and dried, can be most interesting.

Connecting Cultures

Recognizing a connection with African and Native American societies, my art education classes decided to create "wood spirits." Both African and Native American cultures have used carved, painted, and decorated wood to represent the spirit world. We discussed the traditions and images of both the African and Native American cultures, and examined African American craft and folk art traditions in the US. …