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Finding mirrors in works of art

Keriann Armusewicz, Visual Art Teacher

At a conference recently, I saw Amy Sherald speak. She is a fabulous African-American portrait painter who is perhaps best known for having painted Michelle Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. I wanted to see her speak because I think her portrait of Mrs. Obama was wonderfully executed, and I happen to be reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, as these things in the universe sometimes align themselves.

Amy Sherald spoke little of working with Michelle Obama and instead spoke mostly about her work as a whole. She spoke of experiences that influenced her, like going on a field trip when she was in 6th grade and seeing Bo Bartlett’s Object Permanence at a local museum. For the first time, she saw a figure with skin color that matched hers that she could relate to in that painting. She saw a mirror.

This is notable. Take a moment to recall an artist you learned about in school or recently saw an exhibition of their work. What was their race? Their gender? Where were they from?

The canon of art history has a dialogue like all histories. This particular history is predominantly white and male. Many artists of color from past centuries lack insignia in their works and thus recognition. Women artists of old rarely gained notoriety because women were not educated and thus trained to be artists. Traditional women’s handicrafts, like weaving, were not considered fine art. In the mid-20th century, Hans Hoffmann noted that one of Lee Krasner’s pieces was “so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” The dialogue remains relatively traditional.

Looking around at a crowd of thousands who showed up to hear Amy Sherald speak, I couldn’t help but notice the disconnect between her message and the audience. This was an art education conference, and the field of art education is not very diverse. Most people in that audience looked a lot like me, people who can’t possibly imagine what it’s like not to have a mirror. I knew growing up that I could be anything I wanted to be, in part because I saw people who looked like me in just about every profession. I know that still today this is not true for everyone.

Each of our students needs mirrors in the world around them. Artists like Amy Sherald are helping to create those mirrors.

There is an inherent comfort in what we know, but it’s time to break away from our comfort zone. I know of some great artists of color and women artists, but not nearly enough to create a rich multicultural art history curriculum through which our students can all, truly, find a mirror.

I received some great new resources at the conference, but I know that our community is also a great resource. Several of you have shared fabulous artists already, previously unbeknownst to me, for further exploration. So here’s an official call for wonderful and interesting artists that you may know through which our students can find a mirror. Please use this google sheet through May 1 to add an artist that you would like to see possibly taught in the curriculum going forward.

I’m excited about this opportunity for change, even if it is in one classroom in one school. If there is anything that I have taken away from reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography it’s that big change starts small. And then it grows. I look forward to working with you as we start to change the dialogue of art history by helping every student to find a mirror.

Keriann Armusewicz joined the PBS community in 2017, coming to us from Sag Harbor, New York, though her career teaching art has brought her to Singapore, South Korea, and Egypt. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art education from the State University College at Buffalo, from which she graduated magna cum laude, and a master’s degree in art and art education from Teachers College at Columbia University.

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