Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dali with Sixth-Graders

Week Two: Exercises in Ekphrasis

In our second week we tackled some pretty weighty questions: What is art? What is the point of it? What do you want to say with your art?

To show how a person's own history affects the way he interprets a piece of art, we read the myth of Icarus (I typed it up very quickly; they were not impressed with my ill-proportioned sketch of the Minotaur), then we looked at Peter Bruegel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," and finally we read William Carlos William's poem that addresses Bruegel's painting (also "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"):

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

I think that a lot of them could identify with Icarus, and I was incredibly impressed when someone in my first class connected the painting with Aesop's fable about the gnat and the rhinoceros that we had read the week before.

And as I intended, the poem inspired a debate about William Carlos Williams in general. I didn't know it, but they had just read "The Red Wheelbarrow," one of my personal favorites, a poem which did not impress several of my students.

"I could have written that," one of them said.

I talked about how for me, just an image or a series of images (the red wheelbarrow, the white chickens, the raindrops) can evoke a whole train of thought. I tried to put us in the mind of the farmer plowing the field below Icarus.

"I don't think it's fair for him to talk about that other painting," someone else said. "The painter might not agree with what he said."

The whole conversation about the nature of art--our role as writers and artists, the responsibility of the writer, the creative process--was fascinating and revealing and I hope I made the kids realize that writing isn't a chore, but rather an art form, just like painting and music and dance. Its rules and limits make it all the more creative because the writer has to work within a set framework to produce something unique.

Anyway, they had fun writing about the paintings I gave them--Chagall, Dali, and anonymous Chinese calligraphy.
Their creativity was through the roof! And this week their "Life of a Writer" homework is to think of a natural phenomenon they don't understand. You'll see the awesome things they came up with (and their explanations!!) in my next post.   :)

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