Art History Through Their Fingertips
Dale Rawls's 8th grade art students "become" noted artists
From the Spring 2009 Caller
By Nadine Fiedler
Art history can be bewildering for middle school students. The works of famous artists can seem remote, lost to time and the changes of culture. But art teacher Dale Rawls has found an antidote to that.
Through study of famous artists and art periods, and research into their social and historical contexts, each of Dale’s 8th grade students chooses what intrigues him or her—and then create a work of art, a copy or a work in that style, over the class’s 18-day unit. The students immerse themselves in Andy Warhol, say, or Wayne Thibaud, or Jackson Pollock, and in the act of interpreting they come to learn right in their own eyes, hands, and brains what makes that artist unique—and the challenges and joys of art-making.
The process begins with students learning to do web-based research on artists and periods. “I have them see that artists don’t create their work in a vacuum; they train, they perfect their craft, they reflect their culture,” says Dale. Then they choose to either make a direct copy, or work in the style but with their own subject matter. That exercise leads directly to problem solving as they grapple with questions about the materials the artist used, and finally how to turn this image and idea into something real—something on paper or canvas, or created with a camera and altered in Photoshop.
Dale builds on what he’s taught before, and what the students already know, by using the same vocabulary of art that he’s used for their first two years in middle school, concepts such as composition, light source, symmetry, color, and texture. “This project is a real epiphany for many students,” says Dale. “They realize how they can use a particular color, or make the work a particular size, and they become more self-directed. They ask for help, and they struggle with it, and I have to zoom around and help everyone, but it’s a project they really run with.”
This class is also these students’ first experience in formal painting composition. “In the midst of all this work, I show them how paintbrushes differ and teach painting technique,” says Dale. “This work teaches safe risk-taking, because you can just paint over it if you take a take a chance and fail.” It also provides a high level of understanding in design and media for more advanced art studies in high school.
The result is amazing. Some works are more polished than others, but they all capture the essence the student responded to in the first place. The students take enormous pride in their finished project: one Warhol-inspired painting sports a huge, confident signature, ANNE—just like Andy Warhol would have done.
Dale Rawls got his start in art when a perceptive teacher in his Hillsboro high school recognized his artistic talents. He went on to study at Portland State University under many renowned local artists. In later pursuit of a master’s in education he examined whether making art feeds teaching or vice versa. “I concluded that each nurtures the other,” he says. He and his wife, Barbara, whom he married when both were at PSU, have maintained a studio and shown in galleries for 35 years.
“I love that Catlin Gabel values me both as a teacher and an artist. I’m not just teaching here, I’m talking about what’s essential to my being,” he says. One of the best things a student ever said to him was that Dale doesn’t teach them just so they learn technique, he teaches them how to articulate important things in their lives through art.