The history of art is as diverse as humankind. We have been creating art across centuries to connect between language, class, culture, color and gender and all aspects of the human experience.
When I first started teaching I was very overwhelmed with the feeling of responsibility. I had over a hundred faces looking up to me (literally) that looked very different from mine and had very different experiences.
I am your stereotypical public school teacher: white, female, middle class. I felt a deep need (thanks to some really great art education professors) to facilitate a classroom with diverse experiences and exploration of a variety of artists and art styles.
These nine artists are my favorite artists I’ve discovered throughout the years that help facilitate a broader art education. There are so.many.amazing. artists not on this list, I’d love to hear your top picks!
Cheeming Boey: This Malaysian born artist is most famous for his pen illustrations on foam cups. His artwork spans pen illustrations on foam coffee cups and bananas to graphic novel style comic books. His blog I am Boey is updated with his newest work and students really respond to his pop-culture references and unconventional “canvases”.
Elizabeth Catlett : An inspiring sculptor and artist that depicted the experience of African Americans, typically women, of the 20th century. She was the granddaughter of freed slaves and her art championed social change. She is my absolute go-to artist for my figure sculpture units and students love to compare/contrast her sculptures to Alberto Giacometti’s elongated and skeletal figures.
Lois Mailou Jones: An artist and educator (she was Elizabeth Catlett’s teacher!) that explored African tribal art in many of her paintings and textiles. Like Catlett, much of her art explored the prejudice she experienced due to her race and gender. For a jam packed unit there are some great connections to African tribal art and Pablo Picasso’s more abstract style.
Utagawa Hiroshige: This Japanese print maker created woodblock prints that illustrated the life and travels of Japan. This short YouTube biography has some great visuals to help students see his style of art (and help pronounce his name!) His woodblock landscapes would inspire artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet and student’s love to hear about how his travels through Japan inspired his prints.
Shirin Neshat: A photographer and film maker famous for exploring the role of women and Islamic fundamentalism in her home country of Iran. Her early photographs are intensely political and usually are autobiographical. Some images include guns and I wouldn’t show younger students, but her important message also comes through in her less graphic photographs. A great artist to spark debate in a secondary (or younger!) setting.
Frida Kahlo: DUH. Frida had to be on my list. One of the most famous (and one of my favorite!) female and Mexican artists of all time, her self-portraits paintings are brave glimpses into her life and emotional state and always leads to great conversations in the classroom. Once an art student has seen a Frida Kahlo painting they will never forget this powerful woman.
Georgia O’Keeffe: I always underappreciated Georgia O’Keeffe. I thought of her as the famous large flower lady, and it wasn’t until I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe and heard her speak about her art in this old YouTube clip that her valuable role in American art really hit me. She was making waves in the modern art scene when it was still very much a boy’s club. Sorry I doubted you, Georgia!
Emily Carr: A Canadian landscape painter that vividly painted the west coast of British Columbia and it’s First Nations culture. Her landscape paintings are full of life while also depicting the isolation she experienced. She was quoted as describing herself as “a little old woman on the edge of nowhere”. I love showing her paintings juxtaposed next to Vincent Van Gogh because they both share this radiating larger-than-life quality that make a strong impact on students.
Jim McDowell: An Asheville North Carolina artist who explores his heritage through Face Jug pottery, a type of folk art made by African slaves post Civil War in the southern states. I would love for him to visit my classroom and work with my ceramics students! His energy and passion for this important historical art form is captured in this episode of PBS History Detectives.
Who are the artists that inspire your classroom?
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