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.



Join the largest creative community established exclusively for visual arts educators, college professors, researchers, administrators, and museum educators.

Join NAEA Renew Membership

« November 2011 | Main | January 2012 »

Tuesday 12.20.11

Against the Current: Discovering Meaning in Art

Ev“Fur Trader and his Half Breed Son” or
“Fur Traders Descending the Missouri”

George Caleb Bingham
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Before research is done, before reading about what others – art historians – say about a work of art, teachers need to ask their students what THEY see and how the work of art speaks to them.  Then, the discovery of meaning can begin.
This beautiful painting, “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” by George Caleb Bingham, led my students and me on an extraordinary adventure into American history and to the understanding of context in art.  In its serene calm, the painting evokes mystery and contemplation.
The easy way to discuss the painting is the structure or form of the work: the use of color, balance, composition, etc.  More difficult is to interpret meaning; understanding what the artist is conveying.  Meaning cannot be addressed without discussion of context- what was the artist’s world like in 1845?
As I prepared background information for my students, I read articles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the painting is part of its collection), attended lectures at The National Gallery of Art and read art history books- one of which, written for children, is Sr. Wendy Becket’s American Masterpieces.
While I agreed with most art historian’s points, the flippant referencing to the focal point of the picture: the black animal at the bow of the pirogue boat disturbed me. The animal was referenced by Sr. Wendy as “the mysterious animal chained to the canoe, which in its outline, seems to resemble a cat.”  I read the excerpt to my 5th grade students who thought about it wide–eyed. The first student response was that “cats don’t like water.”  And, “imagine camping with a pet cat!” All agreed the animal WAS NOT a cat.
The article by the Met pronounced the animal was a bear cub- without an explanation why it would be.  My students asked, “Were bear furs traded?”
Some historians have named the mysterious animal an owl.  Really?
These questions lead to the discussion of the Voyageurs and fur trapping in North America.  What furs were traded?  How does a trapper work?  We researched the process of trapping, and came to the conclusion that fur trappers needed scent to set their traps.  This animal in the boat was not a cat, a bear or an owl –but a fox or a beaver!  On closer inspection, and after comparing photographs of the animals- all conclusively decided the animal was a fox kept by the men to collect urine samples for setting traps.
Yet, with our discovery of what we believed was the true identity of the animal (my students were jubilant with their creative, thoughtful and intelligent deduction) we still wondered why Bingham placed such emphasis on this animal; it alone is balancing the weight of the pirogue- all the weight is toward the stern:  pelt packs (which average 80 lbs in weight, and two humans (about 200 lbs).  Realistically, the boat would be elevated in the bow, sinking in the stern.  This animal carried more weight than just a wild fox; it was symbol representing something very important.  What could it be?
By chance, I discovered an old book “Quadrupeds of North America” by John James Audubon, first published in 1846 at a library sale for $2.  Immediately I thought about the black fox in the Bingham painting. A beautiful depiction of the fox is in this book: Vulpes Fulvus.-Desm.  The written description states that the black fox has the most valuable fur in the world; it surpasses beaver and otter and it is scarce in North America.  A live female black fox was sent by the Hon. Hudson Bay Co. to Audubon for an artist’s model and later kept at the Zoological Gardens in London (as America had no zoos at the time) for further study.  Additionally, it was noted, the black fox had significant symbolism for Native Indian tribes.
In Morten’s New English Canaan it states, “The skin of the black fox was considered by the Indian Natives equivalent to 40 beaver skins; and when offered and accepted by their kings, it was looked upon as a sacred pledge of reconciliation.”
When Bingham created the painting, America’s boundaries were changing.  The Louisiana Purchase was being explored and settled, the concept of Manifest Destiny was introduced, Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery was chronicled and discussed, the economics of fur trading was shifting, the Indian Wars had commenced.
Life along the Missouri, the “Big Muddy,” was anything but peaceful and tranquil as pictured in Bingham’s painting.  The river itself was difficult to navigate, and we can identify the river with Bingham’s inclusion of deadheads and murky water depicted in the painting.  Yet the water is calm.  We know the man is a voyageur because of his dress; we know the boy is his son because Bingham titled the work, “Fur Trader and his Half Breed Son” (the original title was changed to “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” by the American Art-Union to avoid controversy).
French fur traders who regularly traveled the Missouri, a major artery for trade, knew to load the pirogues with heavy weight in the front bow to assist with river navigation. In the front of Bingham’s pirogue is a very important focal point, balancing the whole scene. These are all clues to the meaning of the work.
A growing population of “Metis,” mixed race descendants of French fur traders and Native Indian mothers, had no place in white or patrilineal tribes.  These children were outcasts in both societies. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1830, established Nemaha, a half breed reservation for these displaced people.  This allotment of land along the Missouri River Bluffs was “too steep and tree covered for farming; fit only for hunting.”  White settler squatters were enraged and occupied more than half of the reservation land, creating huge conflict.
Bingham was not only educated as an artist, a lawyer and a preacher. He was involved with the government of Missouri and certainly was involved with issues of race and land rights.  Throughout his life, Bingham held strong beliefs about morality,democracy and politics in America. He often used his art to show his political views.  In his painting, “Fur Trader and his Half Breed Son,” Bingham creates an allegorical, moralistic landscape embedded with a symbol for peace, the black fox.
It is not a painting about how the political landscape was, but rather what it should be.
My students and I were excited to make the discovery of meaning of the painting together.  Their Art History lesson connected American History, Literature (with The Journals of Lewis and Clark), Geography, Physics, Economics and Character Education. One boy announced, “This was the best art lesson ever!” We didn’t accept an easy explanation of the painting, but persisted in our questioning and came to our own educated decision that was a great revelation.

“Black Fox” by Thomas Drasdauskis

-Jo-Anne Kirkman

Tuesday 12.13.11

Teaching World Cultures

GeronimoNDN Car: Geronimo in a 1905 Model C, taken at the Miller brothers' 101 Ranch located southwest of Ponca City, Oklahoma, June 11, 1905.  Geronimo, an Apache chief, wearing a top hat, was not joy-riding with his friends. He was under house arrest at the time this posed photo was taken.   

A difficult task, when teaching world cultures, is to address and define cultural differences so that students can fully comprehend, accept and have empathy for things they have no experience with or connection to.  In Minnesota, it is an Academic Standard to teach about the people indigenous to our state:  the Dakota and the Ojibwe. 

The history of Minnesota Indians is brutal and includes the largest public execution recorded in the United States as a result of The Great Indian Uprising, which ended with the capture of more than a thousand Dakota and the public hanging of 38 men in 1862.  The rest of the Dakota were expelled to Nebraska and South Dakota and congress abolished reservations in Minnesota. In addition, there was a $5.00 bounty on Indians (Chief Little Crow’s bounty however was $500.00- and he was shot and killed while picking raspberries with his son.  His mutilated remains were stored in the Minnesota Historical Society until the 1970’s when they were returned to family for burial).

For young students, I have found that using the metaphor of the horse helps students understand the culture, history and contemporary issues of Indians in American Society.  The authentic history should not be ignored, however.  When teaching children, accommodations must be made.

To the Lakota, and other indigenous people, the horse was the symbol of power and survival.  Today, there is not much room for the horse in our society.  Automobiles have replaced the horse in America.

I wrote to Keith Secola and asked permission to use his song, ‘NDN Car’ with my classes. Keith is an award winning Ojibwe musician originally from Minnesota. His song addresses the contemporary Indian culture, and exhibits the sadness, strength and the humor of Indian people:

Here are images we compare and contrast in art class:

Advertisement for Indian motorcycles

ApachePhoto of an Apache scout by Edward Curtis, 1909
Teachers can discuss idea of the “posed” photographs of Curtis

“Woodrow” 1988, Deborah Butterfield, Walker Art Center
This well-loved sculpture is known to most Minnesota students.
For fun-A new use for the horse:  This is Libby who had an opinion about our district’s bond referendum!  Photo by Lezlie Pinske

-Jo-Anne Kirkman


*Listen to ‘NDN Car’ by Keith Secola; Keith gave me permission to use his song:

*Another version of the song with movie by Eddie Spears:

*The Museum of the American Indian:  Song of the Horse Nation; Read, view and learn about the importance of the horse to native cultures.  Hear the story of a Crow warrior raiding Nazi horses in WWII:

Post Script: 
In 1909, Geronimo was thrown from his horse and lay in the cold all night until he was found the following morning.  He later died of pneumonia as a result of the unfortunate accident.  On his deathbed, he told his nephew of his regret to surrender; he is buried at Apache Indian Prisoner of War Cemetery.

Friday 12. 9.11

Venus and Ai WeiWei: Nudity in Art

Last spring, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts hosted an exhibition of exquisite Venetian treasures from the National Galleries of Scotland.  The outstanding piece of the collection, 'Venus Rising from the Sea', 'Venus Anadeomene', by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) was selected to advertise the exhibition throughout the metro area.

One billboard, with Venus in her nude splendor, near our school, was mysteriously  tagged by  night stalkers.  The tagging created a sensation with much laughter and angry controversy with locals and the world!  The photo, with Venus "dressed"  was taken by our school's Art Adventure Chair, Lezlie Pinske, who forwarded it to the Education Dept. at The MIA.  Since then, the photo has gone viral and has been seen and commented on around the world (an example is an article from the LA Times).

My students and the whole Orono School District has been "exposed" to Titian because the billboard sits on the main route to the schools.  So, we addressed it in class.  The key points of the student-led discussion were:
1.  the pros and cons of tagging a billboard -or anything
2.  is tagging art?
3.  is advertising art?
4.  teaching nudity in art;  this is tricky depending on school district's policies;  I choose to discuss it before students visit the art museum on field trips.
5.  society and the buzz about the billboard;  what is the news- the exhibition? or the tagging?
6.  social media:  more people have seen Titian's Venus "dressed" than the way Titian painted her; is this good or wrong?
7.  nudity in art/ pornography; what's the difference?
8.  freedom of expression; what can or should be included/excluded?
9.  who is Ai Weiwei and why is he creating such controversy in China and the world?
10.  should there be government regulation of the arts?

Currently, Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, is under investigation in China for a photograph which the government believes is pornographic. Artists from around the world are becoming involved with this issue. Here's an article from The Guardian.

3bAi Weiwei supporters get naked. Photograph: He Yunchang

-Jo-Anne Kirkman

Wednesday 12. 7.11


Homer-05-homesweethome'Home Sweet Home', Winslow Homer,  National Gallery of Art

For more information:

One of the most memorable experiences my family has had was when my son played with the high school band at Pearl Harbor. World War II vets from the US and Japan stood at attention, caps removed, saluting as the band played, "Taps" and "The Star Spangled Banner" near the USS Arizona. Reflective silence followed the moving musical performance.

The painting by Winslow Homer, created during the Civil War years, captures a similar moment of reflection. Confederate and Union soldiers pause and listen to the song, "Home Sweet Home", played by military bands. In the evening on a battlefield, it was common to hear the bands play songs that marked the end of the day. The song, "Taps", was first played on Civil War battlefields to signify The Extinguishing the Lights Ceremonies.

President Roosevelt was correct when he stated December 7th is,"a date that will live in infamy". But, what have we learned since 1941? I had a dear friend who was forced to serve in the Nazi Cavalry. We talked about his military service and we discussed the current headlines of the war in the Middle East.  Max would shake his head and ask," When would we all learn about war?"

As teachers, we discuss point of view in our classes and celebrate the opposite of war - peace. Derek Stancombe from Great Britain created a graphic video of how to make an origami peace crane. My students make the cranes to celebrate peaceful spirits, give as gifts to soldiers, and send the the Children's Peace Park at Hiroshima.  Here is the link to share.


In Japan, the Zojo-ji Temple in central Tokyo has a beautiful gate built in 1622. The name,of the gate is, Sangedatsumon, which means," the gate delivering from the three earthly states of man:  greed, anger and stupidity". Amazingly, this  gate survived the fire storms of WWII. On December 7th, let's think of all wars, all points of view and imagine peaceful world.

-Jo-Anne Kirkman

P.S. Please see video of Pearl Harbor. Additionally, something to think about... I did not see any memorials in Japan honoring Japanese soldiers who fought and died in WWII.

Tuesday 12. 6.11

St. Nicholas and The Angry Parents: Teaching Art or Religion

Fra Angelico (1387-1455)
Episodes from the Life of St Nicholas:
Birth, Vocation and Gift to Three Poor
Young Girls
Circa 1437, tempera and gold on
wood, 35 x 61,5 cm
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome – Vatican
Museums, Vatican City

Who could guess that teaching about Fra Angelico's painting, "Gift to the Three Poor Young Girls", could create so much uproar?

Every St. Nicholas Day, I momentarily tremble remembering an email sent to me by an upset parent about my teaching this painting in art class.  I've had several such encounters in my years of teaching art.  As careful and politically correct we try to be, someone always seems to be offended.  I've had parents charge in my room telling me what I teach is "not the true God" when we studied a statue of Shiva; a phone call telling me that the Ancient Greek gods on Olympus or the Egyptian gods in Books of the Dead were not appropriate because they were not Christian, or that learning to draw proportions from a life-size skeleton was sacrilegious.

Great art is, by its essence, spiritual.  When we look at history, we can't disconnect religious beliefs throughout the world.  Our religious beliefs, however different they may be, are part of the human experience and therefore part of our history.  But, they also divide us.  As teachers, we don't make judgments about beliefs nor do we speak on a pulpit. 

We teach art- not religion.  Do you have any insights on the topic of Religion in Art?

For a good laugh, here is an article about teaching Dia de Los Muertos from The New Yorker.  It's my "gold coin" I'm tossing to you.  Happy St. Nicholas Day!

-Jo-Anne Kirkman

Monday 12. 5.11

Recess with Scissors

A major frustration and concern we address as arts educators is that Art Education is not “icing on the cake” but the core of student learning.
Most administrators, faculty and parents do not understand what we REALLY do in the art classroom.  Let’s shout it from the mountaintops: We do not conduct recess with crayons and scissors.
We art teachers need to make it clear to everyone in our community what we do and why it is important to student development and learning.  This is an incredibly difficult task; we not only teach students but our school communities as well.
What is your mantra- or shout out?  I’ve included mine that I post everywhere. 

I’ve also included a simple, short PowerPoint with these goals that I can share with stakeholders in my community.

-Jo-Anne Kirkman

Friday 12. 2.11



This short video is a testimony to all of my teachers who influence my daily life, past present and future, and all are significant parts of my whole being.

As we teach, we collaborate and find a community of like-minded people who share this roller coaster ride of Art Education. So, my fellow collaborators, I ask the question:

Who influenced you, and taught you to become an artist and teacher?

Since we are Visual Arts teachers, I decided to share my symbolic visual journey with this video. In the movie, I included works of art that inspire me, my own artwork, photographs from key moments in my life as an art teacher in Minnesota, Japan and Greece. I hope you will recognize the metaphors, allegories and archetypes.

As I created the movie, I thought about all teachers and the joys and frustrations we all experience. Who could forget the first classes we taught? Most of us still have nightmares! Conversely, we fondly remember the achievements and joys of our students.

Every day is a new adventure in the art classroom. We integrate, differentiate, bend, flex our muscles and laugh at ourselves. Our clothes are paint-stained, our knuckles red and our brains are racing- we are passionate about the arts! We hope to inspire all whom cross our path. We all seek excellence in our work with students, curricula, and with our personal art. We fight the good fight and open the world’s window for our students.

With this in mind… I especially want to encourage pre-service teachers on their quest for a life in art education. We all want to inspire and help you on your journey.
So, “from the Land of 10,000 Mosquitoes, and the Voyageurs” (my students’ description of Minnesota), enjoy the show! I hope you’ll reflect and remember (and thank) at least one great art teacher who helped you on your life’s path!

-Jo-Anne Kirkman