Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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November 11, 2011

Looking Around, Finding Spirit

In my last post, I showed images of some things that I found by just looking around in my local community.  I mentioned that I am always struck by the objects that people make.  When we ordinary people make something—snow people, topiary birds, birthday cakes, garden sculptures, paintings, quilts, and so on—we often figure out how to share it with others.  It seems to be important to us humans, not only to make things, but also to share or display what we make.  We see this when we drive through a neighborhood and see seasonal hand-crafted decorations displayed on doors and porches. 

One of my favorite late summer outings is a visit to the “domestic arts” exhibit hall at a local, county or state fair.  I love seeing the flower arrangements and canned goods, for example, and other displays in which “the look” of the finished product is what counts.  There are displays of quilts, of course, and other kinds of handwork.  The local school districts display children’s two and three-dimensional artworks, but there are also extensive displays of paintings, photographs and pottery made by adults.  When I see members of my community shopping at our local grocery store, I often wonder who, among them, are the people who take the photographs, paint the paintings, and create the pottery, quilts, and canned goods that end up on display each September at the Oley Valley Fairgrounds.

This year, the local fair had a special competition in which people had the opportunity to participate in a Decorated Bowling Pin Contest.  I could not believe how many people took up the challenge!

When you take the time to look around, you find wonderful visual evidence of the human spirit. Sometimes it just seems to take hold of you, like the time I was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and simply had to stop and meet whoever had created the brightly colored creatures behind the chain-link fence I was about to pass by.


Sam McMillan, known as “The Dot Man,” paints just about every surface he encounters.  With his wonderful playful spirit, he, like so many of us, finds joy in making.  One finds signs of this spirit all around his home and his studio next door.  Here he is on the front porch of his home, followed by images of the exterior and interior of his studio. 



Many people have visited Sam McMillan over the years, and some have uploaded videos of their visits. Here’s one that I especially like:

When it comes to curriculum, I start here—with ordinary people making things, and in the process, revealing the human spirit.   And then I ask the question, “Why do people make things?” The images I’ve shown thus far reveal a tendency to “make things look nice,” or “fancy” or “beautiful.” People tend to decorate their environment.  Sometimes they work within traditions—like the topiary tradition, for example, that goes back to at least the time of the ancient Romans.  Other times, like with Sam, people simply wish to embellish and thus enhance or personalize their surroundings. 

People make things for other purposes, as well.  While traveling through Kentucky after a family reunion in Lancaster, KY, once again my car came to a dramatic stop when I looked across the road and saw acre upon acre of decorated gravestones.






I’ve been told that throughout the Midwest, there is a tradition of decorating gravestones in this manner.  I was struck by how carefully the decoration of each monument was planned in terms of color and placement of the plastic flowers.  But surely, this practice is part of a long human tradition, all over the world and throughout time, of honoring those who have gone before us. 

We often see evidence of this tradition in roadside memorials. 


These are private expressions in public places. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin continues a long tradition of people in communities creating public memorials to honor the dead.

We can find examples of this very human practice of creating special objects and spaces to honor the dead in every culture throughout time.  This is an important purpose we humans have for making things. 

When I think about what is important for our students to understand about art and the human experience, this is one of the ideas to which I point.  I want to underscore and explore this purpose for art making. 

This is what I mean when I say that in creating curriculum, I begin with people making things.  I then go to an exploration of their reasons for doing so.  We’ve looked at two purposes here, in this post—to embellish or enhance our surroundings and to honor those who have gone before us.  By looking around our world, we find evidence of the human spirit.  We also find enduring ideas about art and the human experience.  In doing so, we uncover some important ideas for grounding curriculum in art.

Once again, I would love to hear from you about how you incorporate enduring ideas such as these in the curricula that you create.  

-Marilyn Stewart


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Jill Hare

Dr. Stewart,
Thank you for your inspirational post. Art surrounds life stories, yet as educators, the everyday is too often taken for granted. In the rural community where I now find myself, county fairs bring together the art of raising and presenting animals, fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Quilts are embellishments of local history and culture, and culinary delights recreate family tradition and pride. Along with these presentations and displays is the art of elementary school children, and each piece tells a story of individual or collective perceptions. I can only imagine the connections to lesson plans and wonder if the ribbon of recognition each receives inspires curricula throughout the year.

As a past elementary arts educator and current high school English and drama teacher, the art of the everyday is too often used as a symbolic hitch to represent the stock story of a holiday, historical event, or cultural representation. When art is used merely as an add-on, appreciation of its story is lost and the student’s connection to its importance becomes reduced to an assignment or classroom exercise.

You ask how I, as a teacher, incorporate “people making things” and the “exploration of their doing so” in the creation of curriculum. Music immediately comes to mind. It is something students can relate to as nursery rhymes and songs of games resonate in youthful play. As students go through adolescence and become young adults, music becomes more and more an identifiable imprint of individuality. Music defines time, culture, and tradition. It is happy, sad, religious, militaristic, mournful, celebratory, tragic, and comic as moods delineate purpose.

My English students use music to understand the poetic rhythms created through the ages as they connect the writings of Homer and Shakespeare to that of modern day rappers and hip hop artists. They use the music of their families and cultures to relive multi-cultural stories of families. Music is used to promote discussions of tolerance and intolerance. Students have used music to further the moods of original short stories as their work is displayed on classroom wiki pages. My thespians use music and the possibilities of sounds to create dramatic effects, express a character, and move an audience. Found in so many places and spaces of the everyday, music grounds curricula that include drama, dance, and poetry. It can be used to enhance the visual as well as inspire the imagination. When I remember the artwork of students at a county fair, the music of the fairway, the band stages, and the presentation buildings resonate throughout the experience of the memories.

Beverly Cornell

Hi Marilyn,
My newest addition to curriculum came from seeing Faith Ringgold's responses to the ending of the Oprah show and Obama's birth issue. She used a geometric pattern of 4 triangles in a rectangle (as in a quilt) she wrote a word in each triangle. (We love you Oprah and Born in the USA) She repeated the design into a bigger shape and added additional text , images, and designs. I wanted my students to explore how events that happen in the news or in popular culture can provoke us. I expanded the knowledge base for the students by adding the work of 4 more contemporary artists using text (Barbara Kruger, Petter Tunney, Mathew Timmons, & Young Hae Chang). We discussed how each artist used their medium and expression to make people notice something and then to think about it. We discussed how each artist also became involved in social activism. For the creative process my students are creating a piece using 4 words of their own choice. I am calling the unit "Text Messages". Recently we had a guest "principal for a day" in our building and he happened to be the editor of the local newspaper - he was quite excited to see how we explore text in art and told the students that the newspaper sometimes puts text on the photos they use to embellish the stories!

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