The work of some artists just screams out for us to start speculating about what is going on, what is being said or thought, what is the backstory or what has just happened. The work of the twentieth century American artist Edward Hopper is one such example. His lonely scenes seem loaded with hidden narratives playing out between the characters pictured.
This fact has resulted in the excellent book In Sunlight or in Shadow: a collection of short stories inspired by Hopper’s paintings and edited by Lawrence Block. It was also behind the 2013 film, Shirley: Visions of Reality directed by Gustav Deutsch. The film draws heavily on the Hopper style and atmosphere as well as framing up of specific images in the fictional narrative of the actress Shirley.
With these sorts of encouragement in the background there were plenty of reasons to turn my attention to Hopper’s work in my art lessons. I was curious to see if my groups of fifteen-year-olds would find the, not so hidden, narratives as accessible and intriguing as I do.
I needn’t have worried, as soon as I put the first image on the screen the discussions started. We’d watched a short film about Hopper, his work, and his relationship with his wife beforehand to provide a little context. But with that as a starting point, the class were only too happy to dive onto the internet and choose an image that they were going to focus on for this art, research, and story writing project. The only restriction I placed on the work that they could choose was that it had to be a painting with either one or two people in it, I felt this would be most useful when we got to the writing stage.
With an image chosen by each individual pupil several steps followed, most of which were done in a purpose made “Hopper research/drawing book”.
- A short Hopper biography was written
- A portrait of the artist was drawn
- The chosen painting was analysed for its compositional and artistic qualities
- The atmosphere/mood was described, along with any dialogue that may have been being said, or thoughts that seemed to be being considered in the image
- A small-scale pencil drawing of the painting was made
- A large-scale ink drawing was also made
- A photographic “restaging” of the composition was made
By the time all these steps had been completed it is fair to say that the pupils knew their own chosen image pretty well, and in many cases had produced an excellently filled research book.
But it was the last step that for me truly brought art and language together. The assignment was simple, write a very short story that could accompany be Hopper painting that they had chosen. The limit for the story was to be a mere 100 words as a maximum. Very short and to the point! I gave them an example that I had written, based on this image.
Enough was enough. It was time to leave. Day after day, week after week, always the same story.
So many good intentions. She just wanted the best for them. But that arrangement didn’t seem to work in both directions. She feels drained and empty. The bus leaves in a matter of minutes. Is she doubting her decision? Yes, absolutely, it wasn’t meant to end this way.
Today pushed her over the edge. Those angry words, the raised voices, a slammed door. Her mind is made up, there is no going back, teaching isn’t going to be her future.
A couple from my pupils……
It’s always good to look back and reflect on your lesson material. This was a first time run through of a new idea. There are certainly aspects I want to work on a little for next year. But generally, these are relatively small things that refer to the way I teach/introduce the various elements, the content was essentially good.
The story idea remains the central part for me, with it being so short I think (rather usually for me) I may be tempted to get them to hand in an initial draft version for a bit of feedback and the chance thereafter to refine and improve things before the final version is made. It would seem only fair to try and iron out a few small language issues, as the pupils are writing in English and not in Dutch, their first language.