Georgia O'Keeffe - Sky Above Clouds IV (oil on canvas) 1965
In a recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago I came across some collages that were created in response to the above O'Keeffe painting, from one of the education programs that are held in the education wing of the museum. I think the collages were made by elementary school students, but I can not be certain. I do know that I have seen these type of projects in many levels, from elementary school to graduate school MFA programs.
student work on view in the education wing of the Art Institute of Chicago
Some might argue that these type of assignments give students agency in and a perspective on what might otherwise be seen as a "weird" or inaccessible painting due to its abstracted approach to representation. I believe the argument is that the students learn something about the work by copying it, thereby embodying the content for themselves. The problems I have with this project (and projects like this) is that rote copying is not based in actual experience and that this type of project is too restrictive to give students freedom to express themselves (AKA, autonomy).
On the idea of experience and translation we should look at what O'Keeffe's painting is. It seems to be a painting of clouds and they sky as they might be seen from an airplane. The extremely large scale of the piece emphasizes the grandiose and overpowering size of the earths atmosphere. The purpose of this painting seems to be an encapsulation of this quasi-transcendent experience of seeing something we see every day (the sky) from a new and surprising perspective. Where O'Keeffe is trying to give her viewers a similar experience the students in the classroom are only making a second-hand representation at best.
This project also restricts the students creative process to only the content in Sky Above Clouds IV. What if a student isn't interested in making a collage of clouds? Also, the students work will ALWAYS be second-rate in comparison to the original. Without even mentioning technical ability and artistic training, the students are working on a much different scale (8" x 10" to O'Keeffe's 96" x 288") and material (construction paper and glue to oil paint on canvas). These two problems lend themselves to student artworks that I call (in a term borrowed from Olivia Gude) "hand-turkeys." This is evidenced by how the students' work above does not show deep or thoughtful variety, similar to the traditional hand-turkeys that follow a prescriptive method which yields slight varieties on a theme. This is a sign that a project was too restrictive and thereby does not give the students, who are all different people with different lives and experiences, enough room to explore their individuality.
A better assignment would start with a class discussion about the painting, how and why she might want to represent such a scene, and what experiences (beautiful scenes / landscapes / etc) the students might want to convey to their viewers. Then the students come back to the studio, brainstorm how their experience(s) might be similar or different from O'Keeffe's, and begin to create pieces where they might use a similar formal strategy (abstract simple forms and colors) as O'Keeffe to portray their personal experience.
* the students learn how to interpret and discuss a piece of contemporary art
* the students take the content they learn from the artwork and discussion, and directly apply that knowledge to their own work
* the students have a personal connection to the work they are creating (autonomy in content)
This is my interpretation as an art educator.
As an artist, these 8" x 10" construction paper collages do bring a nice level of humbleness to O'Keeffe's painting - something that I often appreciate in artworks. So, these collages kinda make me like Sky Above Clouds IV a bit more, but that certainly doesn't make up for the irresponsible project.