Collaboration Across the City

Here in Omaha, there is a spectacular teacher named Jane Langenfeld. Spectacular enough, in fact, to be named Nebraska’s Secondary Art Educator of the Year. Being as in awe of her as I am, I wanted to collaborate on a project between her students and my students. We decided to create artworks based on written descriptions provided by students from the other school. Jane was the brains behind the operation with this project, and almost all the ideas here are hers. I am the one with the blog, however, so I get to write about it :)

The original idea for this collaboration comes from an old Albrecht Durer etching of a Rhinoceros. You can check out the story here, but in short, the artwork was created based only on a written description about an animal that he had never before seen. We utilized this idea, and a youtube video called “Never Seen, Never Will” was incorporated into this lesson. Watch it here:

Jane and I began by collecting images on a secret Pinterest board. Which means I had to sign up for Pinterest–gross. But it worked well for this project, and I’m forced to admit that Jane was right. Whether I continue to see my time sucked away on that site, however, remains to be seen. We tried to find images that were visually interesting, with a few being out of the ordinary. Here are a few examples:

We had our students begin with the descriptions of the artwork, using basic descriptions without much analyzation or interpretation. We had them write with the knowledge that someone would be creating a drawing based on their description. The teachers stayed out of the way with the descriptions, but the authors did run them by other students to see if anything needed to be cleaned up or changed before an artwork could be completed.

Some kids took a very direct approach, stating only facts about placement of objects, backgrounds, colors, and anything else needed. Others had a more creative slant, like my student who gave her sculpture of an armadillo both a name and a personality (her writing was entitled “Po, the North Facing Armadillo, if North Happened to be to Your Left”).

I think the best part of this process, for the teachers at least, was seeing our teaching come through in the writing. Jane and I talked about how some of the phrases we use ourselves also showed up in their descriptions, how they referenced artists we discuss, and shared information the way we might share it as teachers. It’s nice to know that sometimes, at least, our kids are actually listening.

When the paintings were finished, we decided to exchange artworks. The day I went to deliver our work, it just happened to be during a random autumn ice storm; I almost died twice, but that’s neither here nor there. We got our works traded, and not long after, we were able to do our big reveal. We put the artwork in the hands of the original writers, and we recorded their reactions when they first saw the artwork that had been based on their writing. Take a look:

We did simple recordings and posted them to YouTube, while Jane had her students use an app called Explain Everything, as well as Voice Thread. Those two apps worked really well for them to explain exactly what they were talking about as well as showing the actual picture directly alongside the artwork. I would love to share those videos also, but I don’t teach there and don’t have permission and don’t want to seem stalker-ish. Here are a few of our artistic results, though, side-by-side with the original pieces that were used for the descriptions.

This was a really good project, and my kids very much enjoyed the experience. They loved the idea of collaboration, and they loved doing the writing (mostly). The artworks were a lot of fun for some–especially if there was a good description from which to work–and a lot of frustration for others. That being said, I think each of my students who participated would want to do it again. Here are some of our pictures next to the original images:

Lastly, I will leave you with a few outtakes from our critique sessions. They should not be taken seriously, by the way :)


Artwork of the Week, 11/24

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Andrea Madden

Lichtenstein Portrait

18 x 24″ Acrylic on Canvas

Drea took a small sketchbook assignment–draw someone you know in the style of Roy Lichtenstein–and turned it into a giant painting. The red dots were made with the eraser end of a pencil, in case you’re curious. The headband and the shirt need to be outlined with black, and the background may need another layer of paint, but we’re pretty close to being done here.

Paint Fight


So, you may have been seen our Paint Fight Gallery and wondered exactly what my students are able to get away with in class these days. Well, a lot, actually, and we had a great time doing it.

The impetus for this was a discussion in class on how to make portraits more interesting. We thought it would be a great idea to do portraits of people covered in paint. Unfortunately, there’s really not time to cover each other in paint during the normal school day, so we had to wait until summer school to pull this off. It was totally worth it.

To begin, we looked at Jackson Pollock:

And Yves Klein’s Anthropometries (human paint brushes–some of which are naked, but it’s tasteful. Don’t watch if you’re worried about naked people):

We then got our paint ready–a lot of watered down acrylic and tempera. We also punctured some holes in small containers of paint so we could drip color out of the bottom, a la Jackson Pollock. A few brushes, some large butcher paper to create our paintings, and we were just about ready to go.



We did have to make a couple of wardrobe alterations, however. We lost socks and shoes, glasses, and anything in our pockets (paint soaks through and covers anything inside of your clothes). Allyah needed to come up with a hijab that she could ruin with paint stains. It happened to be an old white t-shirt that she stapled together so it would hold.



Jo altered her shirt to say “Train through the Paint”–seems appropriate.


Then it was time to head outside and go crazy with the paint. We had three rules:

  • No paint on the concrete (sidewalks and parking lot)
  • No paint on the school exterior
  • No paint on the cars parked near our painting space

Other than that, everything else was fair game, and we had a great time throwing, painting, dripping, and generally just making a giant mess.

Nicole was our first victim:

And then it was Katie:

I think these before and afters are a good illustration of exactly what happened to everyone:

When we were done, everyone posed for formal portraits. I’m actually pretty excited how they turned out. A few of the close up head shots:

And a few of the full-body poses were pretty cool as well:

Those who spent time cleaning up REALLY spent some time cleaning up, going so far as to sit in our sink. A few people, like Jo, decided to just move on with our day covered in paint :)

Now, we are on to the drawings of these spectacular photos, which will be the end result of all this craziness. I can’t wait.

Artwork of the Week, 5/12


Trevor Brockhaus, Battle of the Blocks

12 x 24″, Acrylic on Canvas

If you’ve been looking for an acrylic painting that took two months to complete, features over 200 individually painted lego characters, and couldn’t be more hilarious, you have found it. Trevor took FOREVER to get this done, but I’m really glad it’s finally there. Even if he says he’s going to take it back and paint more once the Summer Arts Festival is over. I would encourage you, if you have the time, to zoom in and check out some of the detail. It’s incredible. And if you do, look for cameos from Batman, Gandalf, and of course Waldo.

Artwork of the Week, 3/31

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Rachel Goins, Death of the Ocean

18 x 24″, Watercolor

Sometimes, we need a break from pretty pictures, and this painting gives us just that. A lovely alien/green creature is being simultaneously hanged and drowned, so, you know, sweet dreams when you’ve got this picture in your head tonight.

Creativity, creepiness, and technical skill–ingredients for a great painting.

Art Shows

I’ve been neglecting posting this week, mostly because I’ve had to put together entries for 4 different art shows in the past 2 weeks. We had a handful of awards come in from the first two shows, and we’re awaiting word on the other two. In the meantime, here are a few pictures of our entries (definitely not all–this would be part of one show).

Rene Magritte

Every week, we look at a different artist from contemporary art or art history; as I’ve said before, I always try to make it interesting for my students with stories, cool artworks, and whatever else. Once in a great while, I’ll even break out a video. Friday, we were looking at Rene Magritte, and I decided to show a video from The Thomas Crown Affair. In the clip, Pierce Brosnan is trying to sneak a stolen Monet painting back into the museum, and he uses himself and his associates dressed up like Magritte’s Son of Man painting as a distraction.

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009  øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009

(Little did the security guys know, the Monet was already in the museum with a forgery on top of it, and the whole Magritte get-up/misdirection was just a ploy so Brosnan could steal a different painting).

Cool scene, right? And how good is that song?

I also have a friend who selected a Magritte painting for the cover of his poetry book, so we check out the painting, the cover of the book, and we read a couple selections.


(You can order the book here if you’re into that poetry thing and have $12 to spend.)

Most importantly, though, my kids did some writing in order to share their opinions and first impressions about Magritte and his work. I’ll finish with a couple of comments I really liked from freshmen and sophomores:

“I really appreciate Magritte and his paintings. The idea of creating subtle problems in the laws of nature is brilliant. I quite enjoy looking through his paintings just waiting to see what is not quite what it seems.”  –Alex, 9th Grade

“This guy is kind of cool because he makes you think. He paints in ways I haven’t seen and it’s pretty cool to be able to think of things like he does. I love how he creates and what he creates.” –Shannon, 10th Grade

This is Not a Pipe pretty much blew my mind.” –Anthony, 9th Grade

Margritti this is not a pipe

Artwork of the Week, 12/16

2013-12-19 08.20.35Claire Gasparovich, Self-Portrait

12 x 24″, Oil on Canvas

Another expressive self-portrait! I love the brushstrokes and the texture in this painting, and the color palette Claire used is very effective–it’s cold and distant. I also like the fact that she freed herself a little bit from proper technique and let the facial features float around some. We’re not talking a De Kooning level of technique abandonment, but I think it’s an important lesson and it has proven to be successful here.


When Experiments Go Right (Map Portraits)

My 5-year old, being the nerdy kid that she is, spends a lot of time reading atlases. Seriously. My 3-year old, being the 3-year old that he is, likes to come poke his face into whatever his sister is doing. One day my daughter and I are discussing the rivers in Montana and the Continental Divide, or something thrilling like that, and my son comes over to literally rest his face right on the map. Adorable, yes, but I start thinking . . . faces on maps . . . could this be a project?


Enter Ed Fairburn. Searching online, I found this map-portrait artist extraordinaire. I’m a little upset because my idea is not as original as I had hoped, but pragmatically, this is fantastic. I don’t even have to make an example, because a dozen finished works are ready to present to my kids.

After looking at Fairburn’s works and discussing examples, we started some plans. The way I see it, you have two choices–work with the map, or fight the map. Here’s what I mean:

If you work with the map, you are trying to incorporate some of its features (roads, rivers, bodies of water, etc.) as part of the design of your project. This accentuate the features of the map, which I think lends itself to a more visually interesting piece. This is a good example:

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If you fight the map, you’re just working right over the top of the map–a straight portrait on a fairly interesting background. Not as intricate or detailed, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t work.

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I don’t think either way is right or wrong; I kind of prefer editing the drawing to fit within the borders, as it it accentuates the map and makes the drawing a little more interesting.

As far as materials go, I let them run wild; not having done this before, I wanted to see what might work the best. There were projects in ink, watercolor, acrylic, graphite, ballpoint pen, and marker. And one profile view that made good use of an exacto knife. The variety was beneficial, and I think when I do this in the future, I will leave it open. Forced to choose, I’d probably go with watercolor or ink; they are each versatile and the ability to be transparent or opaque is pretty valuable with this project. In any case, these were even more successful than I had originally hoped.