The recent collage unit is part of the second grade's year-long study of iconic New York City artists and was inspired by "The Block," a large-scale collage made by the African-American artist Romare Bearden in 1971.
Bearden moved to New York from North Carolina as a young child and lived and worked in the city (first in Harlem and later in Chinatown) until his death in 1988. His "The Block" collage depicts Lenox Avenue, between 132nd and 133rd Streets, in Harlem. The second graders viewed and discussed the collage, noticing the variety of facades, rooftops, windows, and building details, as well as the differences among residential, commercial, and religious buildings. We also looked at the activity depicted on the sidewalks and in the windows of the buildings.
When the students were ready to begin their collages, they selected a base building shape and color that they could add on to or cut away from, as they wished. They decided what type of building they wanted to make and began adding windows, doors, rooftop features, and countless other elements to personalize their facades. Once the buildings were finished, we glued them onto a large piece of butcher paper and added a sidewalk and sky to create two different blocks for each class.
When the buildings were all lined up, students began to add items to the sky, rooftops, and sidewalks. We looked at some typical New York City street scenes and noticed the many things we take for granted on our city streets: mailboxes, trash cans, fire hydrants, and lampposts, to name a few. The finishing touch was adding the students themselves to the scenes. We photographed each student in a couple of poses, printed the shots (in black and white, because the figures in our inspiration piece are in black and white), and, somewhat obsessively, carefully cut them out.
This project fit in nicely with the grade's social-studies curriculum and introduced students to an amazing artist, while further developing their art-making skills. They had many decisions to make throughout the project, looked critically at their own work, and worked collaboratively with their classmates. When basing children's art-making on an adult artist's work, we feel it's important that the students be free to interpret what they see and enjoy about the work and not simply try to copy another artist's style. The second graders certainly did that with this project.