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By Ed Harrison, educational consultant
Art and artists are often popular subjects of discussion. This exploration will take you 'into the art' by asking you to look beyond what you see. To do this, you will be asked to look at some examples of art. As you look at each work, keep in mind that the questions posed in this exercise could be asked of any work of art. Also keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer to many of the questions. You will however, need to support your responses with examples from the paintings.
Consider the painting "A Buffalo Rift". When was it painted? Find some information about other events that were happening on the Canadian prairies at this time. Now look at the painting itself; what do you think is happening in this painting? Make a list of things that could be happening and share it with a classmate. As you compare your lists, discuss what your classmate saw and you did not. Now look at the painting carefully. What do you think the artist has left out of this painting? Why might it have been left out? What do you think happened before the event in the painting occurred? What do you think happened after the event? In answering these questions, you have begun to move beyond the borders of the painting. Why might it be important to move beyond these borders?
Paintings are "frozen" images. They freeze a moment in time, but in a particular way. They provide us with the point of view of the artist. Point of view means that we look through the eyes of another person to see something of what they see. Examine the portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie or Sophy L. Elliot. Why do you think the artist would paint this subject? What did they see that they thought was important? Make a list. Now shift your point of view and look at the artist through the eyes of the person being painted. What do you think the subject sees?
Examine the painting "Simon Fraser descending the Fraser River, 1808". Why do you think the artist drew the picture? Who was the audience for the picture? What effect is the artist trying to achieve? Where is the viewer placed and how does this influence what you see? Who are the people in the picture? How are people arranged in this picture? Does this have an affect on the viewer? If it does, how does it affect the viewer? Make a list of what you observe and share it with another member of the class.
Look at the painting "Shooting Elk". Consider the caption that has been provided to describe the painting. Suppose you had to write a one-sentence caption for the class; what caption would you write? How might yours differ from the one written? Why might you write it differently? Look at this painting again. Describe the colours the artist has used. Why do you think these colours were used? How are these colours important to the painting? What has been emphasized using these colours? Where in the painting do the colours initially draw your attention? Are there any places where the colour has been de-emphasized? Why do you think an artist might call your attention to some things over others?
Look at the painting "A Black Wood Cutter at Shelburne, Nova Scotia". It is important here to determine the historical context of the painting. Look up the history of Black people in the Maritimes. Consider the arrangement of the person and any objects in the painting. Make your own quick sketch of the painting. What did you include and what did you leave out? Where did you place your emphasis? Give some examples of how you emphasized some aspects of the painting over others. What were your reasons for doing so? Now look at the painting; is there any distinctive clothing? How does it differ from other people's clothing at that time? What postures and gestures are used? What implements are being used? How are they being used? Why are these important to the painting? You might try to stand using the subject's posture, to try to copy his gestures, to get a sense of what the subject would be feeling.
Pairs or sets of pictures are interesting. The set of paintings on the death of General Wolfe is a good example. Examine the three paintings: "Death of General Wolfe", "Death of General Wolfe at Quebec" and "The Death of General Wolfe". Before proceeding, be sure that you know something of General Wolfe. Look up the background of General Wolfe in a Canadian history text or encyclopedia. Examine each of the paintings carefully. Consider what the artist is showing you. Notice the details: the people present in the painting; how people are dressed; where they are standing; how they are standing, sitting or in Wolfe's case, lying? Are some people bigger than others? What is happening in the background? When you look at these paintings individually, you can begin to make comparisons. Some paintings show more people than others; different people appear while others disappear, and different backgrounds are used. Make a list of some of the differences. When you compare the paintings you may start to have new questions such as why some people are present in certain paintings while others are not. Why do some pictures show First Nations peoples and others do not? Did the death of Wolfe really happen in this way? Did some artists create a fictional account of Wolfe's death? Which artists intensified reality through the use of colour or detail? What other questions come to mind?
A different type of art is poster art. There are many different eras of poster art that you may wish to explore. As an example, look at "Attack on All Fronts". Notice the wording, the theme and the way in which the art has been drawn. Who do you think this poster was attempting to attract? When was it drawn? What major events in Canada were happening at the time? Compare this poster to "The Produce of the Home Country" or "Carriers of Empire". Ask yourself the same questions. Make a list of differences between the two posters. Choose a time period to research. Search online sources for posters of the era in which you are interested. Your challenge will be to create an original poster that reflects this time period. Be prepared to defend your work.