Deconstructionist Practices As Reconstructionist
In 1995, I worked with two eighth grade classes at Washington Irving
School on Chicagos west side to explore whether middle school
age students could use current methodologies in art and cultural
studies to study the symbolism of black and white in contemporary
culture. The students superior knowledge of the texts of popular
culture combined with my knowledge of cultural theory and critical
investigation to produce some sadly expected and some unexpected
insights into the construction of meaning through color symbolism.
As a visiting artist, I couldnt come into a classroom and
begin an examination of such a potentially charged subject without
first getting to know the students and establishing a climate of
trust. Because I believe that successful cultural investigations
must be embedded in studio art investigation and learning, throughout
the project art lessons were introduced to give the students the
skills needed to conduct their aesthetic and cultural inquires.
During the first two weeks of the residency, students studied value,
the darkness or lightness of a color. The students drew geometric
solids and then used their knowledge of making value gradations
with oil pastels to create convincing three-dimensional forms. Developmentally
these students are striving to master adultlike skills in drawing.
This highly successful exercise set a tone of significance for our
further studies and convinced many students of their ability to
do high quality work in an art project.
In the second phase of the project, we began the study of value
as the criteria by which people judge the worthiness of objects,
ideas, and even, of other people. Our focus question was, How
does this culture value value?
We began by thinking of ourselves as investigators, detectives looking
for clues in the popular movie and childrens book, The
Lion King. We discussed the difference between imputing significance
to an isolated example of color use and seeing significance in the
use of color in a number of related instances.
Over and over, we discovered that lightness was associated with
good and darkness with evil. Simba and his father, the true king
of the lions, have light manes; the evil brother who wants to usurp
the throne has a black mane and nails. We contrasted the good light
animals with the threatening dark ones; the high chroma kingdom
with the dusky and fearsome land of the marauding hyenas. We considered
what this means in a story that opens with the lines, ...every
living thing has its place in the great circle of life. Of
course, we could not help but hear an echo of the tradtional racist
exhortation to know ones place.
As part of our visual investigation we mixed colors to match Simba,
the hyenas, and the various lions and then painted projected versions
of the drawings in the wrong colors. We spent time looking
at these new images--considering whether the different values caused
us to see the story differently. We noticed how strange it seemed
to see the blonde hyenas attacking the little dark cub
or how the perception of the bad uncle was softened when he took
on the coloration of his good brother. The revised images seemed
highly charged and unfamiliar.
In another aspect of the project, the students made lists of familiar
cultural icons and everyday sayings that utilize dark and light
symbolism. From this list we created a series of questions, Which
witch is the good witch? Which horse has a better chance
to win? Which angel is the devil? that caused
us to think about what messages we absorb from everyday sayings.
Our visual investigation at this stage of the project involved the
study of graphic symbolism. The students drew and cut out silhouettes
and pictograms of the various language images: angels, horses, witches,
cowboys, birds, airplanes, etc.
Each image was painted in black and in white
so that we were able to experience the psychological impact images
in different values had on our consciousness.
The final presentation of the project called Its
Not Just a Black and White Issue consists of four large,
canvas banners that hang permanently in the schools hallway.
The banners include stories about racism and resisting racism based
on interviews students conducted with adults in the community. The
ability to draw geometric solids became the basis for developing
cartoon characters who enact the communitys stories.
For me, the most touching aspect of the project
is the language of everyday urban life used to describe struggling
with day to day issues of external and internal racism--quite different
from the Disney movie in which the moral voice of the lions (who
according to the students talk like the teachers) is
contrasted to the wicked hyenas who speak in clever, colorful street
One section of the banners includes student responses to the question,
What effect does this symbolism of dark and light have on
children? The Mexican, Puerto Rican, and African American
youth discussed the implied messages about their future and possibilities;
several students mentioned that they had been uncomfortable with
this imagery in the past, but had not known how to articulate or
discuss what they were seeing. It was particularly fascinating to
hear these students of color discuss the way in which white children
would be effected: It might make it seem natural to them if
they are in control or have more advantages.
Through the public art project, the students investigations
were shared with the larger school community, thus drawing other
students and teachers into the discussion of color symbolism in
popular and school culture. Initially it seemed odd to be seriously
discussing the symbolism of a Disney movie, but it became increasingly
clear to us all how racially charged symbolism is an unchallenged
part of our everyday culture.
Click here for
Page 3 of "Drawing Color Lines"
click on the pictures below to