Breaking the Ice: Using personal narrative, personification and visual metaphors to access art

The following article appeared in the Faculty Voice column of the Fall 2004 Out of WAC Newsletter.

By Elizabeth D’Amico, Art Department

Exploration of the Visual Arts is a course offered for non-art majors by the Plymouth State University art department. Some of the students taking this course have not practiced art since elementary or middle school, but most have taken a basic art course in high school. While many of the students don’t feel comfortable using the language of art, everyone feels comfortable in a free write situation that will not be graded. I begin the semester with a writing activity that exposes students to a variety of artists and artistic styles, which also serves as a way to discover how art communicates through visual metaphor. This exercise is originally from an article in Art Education, but, long before I had read that article, I had used visuals as writing prompts.

I display approximately 50 postcards or calendar size prints of portraits including paintings, sculptures and photographs from a variety of different art styles and periods. Students are instructed to quickly select one of the portraits on the basis of feeling an immediate connection with the portrait. It doesn’t matter whether the individual in the portrait is male or female, just as long as there is a strong connection.

After selecting a portrait, students begin a free write using first person narrative as if they are the person in the portrait. They write the first thoughts that enter their heads with no worry about syntax or audience. They answer the basic question of how it feels to be the person in the portrait. Writing should continue for five to eight minutes and is usually very vivid and personal – often including metaphors.

The second step is to select an inanimate object found within the portrait such as the hat the person is wearing, the bench they are sitting on or a tree in the background landscape. This object is then personified and answers the question of how it feels to be in this image. Students use their imaginations in a playful way where anything goes. Humor is often part of this step, and students begin to see new relationships within the work as well as becoming more keenly aware of the entire image. Once again, writing usually continues for about five minutes.

The third step is a bit more personal, and students need a reminder that most of the writing will be for their eyes only. This step goes back to the initial reasons for selecting a particular portrait: what was the immediate connection they first felt with the portrait? This time, they write first person narrative, candidly answering the question of how they personally are like the portrait. This step often brings up surprising memories that may have been long forgotten, but it specifically establishes a strong bond between the viewer and the portrait. This step often continues a few minutes longer than the previous steps.

The fourth step usually comes as a surprise and has surprising results. Students are told to exchange portraits with someone else in class and write what it would feel like to be the person in their partner’s portrait. There should be no discussion. This step is often not as easy at first because there was no immediate connection between the viewer and the portrait. This step often continues a few minutes longer than the other steps.

After students finish writing, I ask them to carefully read through all they have written and underline any statements that are too personal to share. Once this is done, students are instructed to take turns reading aloud everything that was not underlined to their partners. I emphasize that they must read rather than paraphrase since this is less subjective. Students may at first feel awkward about this activity, but they soon discover there is much to be learned from the exercise. To their surprise, some find their partner’s interpretations dramatically different from their own interpretation.

When all students have had a chance to finish reading aloud, we have a large group discussion to share similarities and surprise differences. Most see that each viewer brings his own unique set of experiences to a work of art and that his interpretation may be dramatically different from others.

Students are then asked to write a metaphor for the portrait they have chosen. Some examples of metaphor are usually necessary, and a few students need a bit more time to think of an appropriate metaphor. Given time for reflective writing, such as a homework assignment, students write fascinating metaphors:

  • “Determination is a raging fire burning under control.” – Michael Neveln, ‘05
    In reference to Junge mit Ball by Karl Hofer
  • “I am a bird, wishing to be free.” – Joe Goss, graduate student
    In reference to a self portrait by Frida Kahlo
  • “Deep thought is hundreds of waves mixing the sand on the ocean floor.” – Tina Ernst, ‘05
    In reference to The Blue Eyes by Henri Matisse
  • “A broken heart is an endless dark sky overhead.” – Alexandra Tuttle, ‘07
    In reference to The White Girl by James McNeill Whistler

The reflective writing homework assignment is a participation grade only. Students include as much or as little from their free write as they wish. Reflective writing reveals the importance and depth of this activity:

“For the same [portrait], one [student] perceived a weary man who had been working all day in the sun, while another saw a tranquil man relaxing while the world bustled around him. [My partner] … twice saw the image of an oppressed unhappy woman in two distinct images, which lead me to question if she were releasing some part of her own inner struggle…. We can see how past experiences have shaped thinking and how personalities take hold of judgment. The portraits seemed to have the same affects as ink blots might have, revealing inner emotions that we might not be able to discover through different measures.” – Ben Conte, ‘07

“I really wasn’t sure why I had chosen the portrait Young Girl Writing (Vermeer) until I started to write. I found that I liked the brightness of the painting and the smile of the girl, but there was something else. As I thought more about it, I found myself wondering who I would write to. Then the story became filled with details related to my life… During the discussion process, I discovered that my partner began by describing the girl too. Although, from then on, her story was completely different. She added her own unique life experiences. I learned that everyone has individual experiences and memories that influence their outlook on art.” – Jamie Roy, ‘05

“I learned from [this experience] that I enjoy art. I look back now and see that I always have, but was too worried about my skill level to attempt any art work. My goal is to continue working and seeing where I might be able to go from what I have already learned in the first week.” Mike Neveln, ‘05

I find this opening session of free writing, one-on-one sharing, group discussion and reflective writing to be a valuable tool in breaking the ice for non-art students. I also get to know them better almost immediately. Within just one class period, students are already becoming more comfortable with each other, discussing art on a more sophisticated and tangible level, and most importantly, looking forward to better understanding their own art as well as works from art history. Hopefully, they will take this experience with them for future forays into the art world of museums or any other art-related endeavors they may have in the future.

Elizabeth D’Amico is an adjunct faculty member of the Art Department at Plymouth State University.

The original source of this activity is from the article “I Am the Dark Forest”: Personal Analogy as a Way to Understand Metaphor by Patricia James in the September 2000 issue of Art Education.

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