Magazine article Art Education

THE ART OF WORDS: Ekphrasis in Action!

Magazine article Art Education

THE ART OF WORDS: Ekphrasis in Action!

Article excerpt

Imagine the reaction of a classroom full of 3rd-grade students when shown Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940). Aside from the initial gasps and giggles, some of the disparate phrases students would use to describe the artist and her surroundings range from "scary woman" to "colorful jungle." When shared with the class, these verbal descriptions can enhance each student's perspective of Kahlo's work. Imagine then the value of creating poetry based on this or any other great work of art. The processes involved in creating artwork and poetry are both similar and often reciprocal. Ekphrasis celebrates and cultivates this relationship, particularly encouraging the use of written and verbal descriptive works to enhance the art education experience for students.

While ekphrasis can be explained etymologically as a vivid description of an image, the term has come to be synonymous with poetry about a work of art. First introduced in Ancient Greece as a rhetorical exercise (Welsh, 2007), modern ekphrastic works can simply describe a work of art or expressively bring it to life, inviting the reader to look at the piece in a new and different way. The transformative experience of creating any ekphrastic work has the potential to be powerful, purposeful, relevant, and meaningful, both for the creator and the audience.

As effective as ekphrasis is, when introducing its possible implications to art education students, I found many were unaware of this method of engaging with a work of art. My students had a natural understanding of the relationship between the word and the image, but finding tangible ways to use this relationship to enhance classroom learning proved to be a bit more difficult. I developed a presentation to specifically detail the various ways ekphrasis could be incorporated in the art classroom. Presented as a summer institute session at Kutztown University and a workshop for the Pennsylvania Art Education Association, the instructional strategies, labeled Ekphrastic Experiences, have been well received by art educators, art education students, and education students.


Ekphrasia's role in the art world and the realm of poetry is evident over a long and prolific history. James Francis outlines the context of the intricate details depicted in the "Shield of Achilles" from Homer's Iliad, the first recorded example of ekphrasis in Western culture (2009). By describing each contrasting, layered section of the circular shield, Homer offers detailed insight that has resulted in countless artistic interpretations. Since that time, poets ranging from John Milton to William Carlos Williams have used artistic works as inspiration. Today, teachers introduce visual images in reading and writing classrooms to appeal to a diverse range of learners and encourage higher-order, analytical thinking (Moorman, 2006). For teachers who are actually tasked with integrating reading and writing, this integration will provide additional opportunities to foster creativity and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of art. Teachers who are not required to teach verbal literacy in the art room will find that the inclusion of ekphrasis increases motivation, peaking student interest and curiosity. Finding unique, relevant, and content-driven ways to integrate writing in the art room can be a challenge, but it is a challenge that will ultimately allow the art teacher to reach and teach more students without detracting from the visual arts curriculum and, in fact, enhancing it.

After researching historical and contemporary ekphrasis, I explored and developed instructional strategies that have the potential to transform the art room into a literary and creative think tank where art is not only created but also viewed, analyzed, and interpreted. In order to create an ekphrastic poem the writer/ viewer, regardless of age or experience, has to engage in critical inquiry and deconstruct a work of art. …

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