Going through my book stacks this weekend, I found this book, Prints and Posters of Ben Shahn. It brought back a flood of memories and some thoughts on how to engage kids in a conversation about Art that Says Something.
My major in college was Fine Arts, emphasis: Metal Sculpture, but I took a ton of drawing classes along the way. For years, I really struggled with drawing ‘people-hands.’
My Advanced Drawing teacher, Jim Pink, used to write down lists of names (artists) for me to go research at the library. Every time he wrote up a list, I’d go pull all the titles he’d written down and sit somewhere in a library corner for hours, sifting through the references and trying to figure out what exactly Mr. Pink wanted me to take away from each artist. They all influenced me in some way.
There’s no denying the deep statements and impact of Ben Shahn’s work, exploring his role as a visionary activist and masterful storyteller. But what really stood out to me at that point in my life (and still does) is how he drew hands. What a focal point for exploration!
The way he drew hands.
He made it seem so simple. Yet these hands said so much.
The depiction of hands in Shahn’s work varies from piece to piece, but the ones that grabbed me (no pun intended), are so articulate and so beautiful. In a few lines, the hands he drew showed hard work and struggle and exposed the soul of the subjects he represented — it made me feel empathy and human connection. It made me think about the bigger story he was telling.
I bought this book (from the photo above) and studied it so many times pages are falling out. In reflection, I started thinking about how I might teach my kids to look at and consider Ben Shahn’s artwork. When kids are little, it’s all about making stuff. By the time they’re five or six, we can start talking to them about using artwork to talk about and express their feelings.
As they get older, it becomes more important to help them understand how to use artwork to talk about what’s going on and what they care about. My kids are 14 and 18. Here’s where I start with them: