Surrealism, One Page at a Time: How Do You Learn about an Important Movement in Art History, Break Away from the Two-Dimensional Format That Students Often Get Too Much of, Combine Elements of Fine Art and Craft, and End Up with a Very Special Object That Students Can Hold in Their Hands and Show Proudly to Their Friends? My Eighth Graders Did It by Creating One-of-a-Kind Accordion-Fold Books, Using Surrealism as Their Jumping-Off Point

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As I designed this project I worried that it would be too complicated and too logistically challenging. When I broke it down into three separate components, I realized that it was not only do-able, but would give the students a rich and well-balanced art experience.


* An inner tube cut into 3" (8 cm) squares and scrubbed clean. (I asked a tire store and they gave me used inner tubes for free.)

* Wood, cut down into approximately 2 x 2" (5 x 5 cm) pieces. (I found scrap wood at a cabinet shop and cut it down on a band-saw.)

* Water-base printing ink or acrylic paints for printing or raised stamp pads.

* Foam makeup sponges if using inks.

* Davey board, .082 80 pt. size, cut into 6 1/2" (17 x 17 cm) squares.

* Light tag board, cut into 6 x 18 1/2" (15 x 47 cm) strips.

* Colored pencils.

* Glue, rulers--ideally 18" (46 cm) ones, old catalogs or magazines.

Creating the Content

As an introduction to the lesson, my eighth-grade art class looked carefully at Rene Magritte's paintings, and talked about Surrealism. Students responded positively to the "realistic" look of the paintings, but also loved the twists on reality that characterize the work of Surrealist artists. By the end of the lesson, they understood how these painters were more inspired by dreams and the subconscious than physical reality. Students saw that when objects not normally associated with each other are combined in a picture, the surprising juxtaposition gives the paintings a fantastic, otherworldly quality that makes us want to keep looking at them.

When I asked students if photographers could be Surrealists, they said no. I surprised them with slides of Jerry Uelsmann photographs, and they saw that, through darkroom manipulation, this artist created works similar to Magritte's--his photographs also look realistic, but use unlikely combinations to create impossible, dreamlike landscapes.

Then, in practing what they learned, students thought of two objects with a surrealistic relationship to one another--things that are not usually associated with each other in any way, but when combined, might seem fantastic, weird, and/or wonderful--not facile combinations, like opposites (fire and water) or related things (cats and dogs). Students' combinations were delightfully imaginative--a bowl of fruit/solar system, squid/tree, fire/ snakes, blender/penguin, trash can/ flower, pencil/pineapple, and so on.

Next, students transformed one object into another in a series of ten drawings. As an example, I showed them M.C. Escher's piece called Metamorphosis. Students realized quickly that this was not as difficult as it seemed. I had plenty of animal, plant, tree, and other pictures available to use as reference. As students began their series of preliminary drawings, I enjoyed watching their creations develop--a basketball gradually grew appendages and became a turtle; a toaster became a flower while its cord grew leaves and became the stem; tree roots formed themselves into the legs and feet of a lion while into the leafy top, eyes appeared and the uneven edges gradually became a mane.

Crafting the Book

Next came the "craft" part of the project, which required careful, skillful attention to detail, exact measurement, and neatness. With models of accordion-fold books and instructional handouts close at hand (see handout example), students folded long pieces of tag board into accordion folds, then glued three pieces together to make a twelve-page book. I modeled this process one step at a time, and worked with small groups of four or five as students completed their drawings. …