|A Bronc Twister, Charles M. Russell; Amon Carter Museum|
The second piece from that field trip that I use often in class is titled Ease, by William Michael Harnett.
|Ease, by William Michael Harnett; Amon Carter Museum|
Although it may not look it, Ease is a type of self portrait. The subject of this work commissioned the painting to tell a story about his life, without needing to appear in the painting itself. When I was gathered with my young writers at the museum, we stood in front of the painting, making a list of all the objects we could see and brainstorming ideas of what type of life the person owning these objects may have led. They noticed the fine details; some talked about the discoloration in the papers, others were distressed over the lit cigar sitting on top of what appears to be a newspaper. We wondered aloud about the envelope at the center of the portrait, as well as the array of instruments. Afterward, they were given time to write a quick creative story about the person behind the portrait.
I sometimes use this painting with my writers at the beginning of the year or when we're struggling to find ideas for writing. By giving them time to draw, create a collage, or use digital media to create a representation of themselves -- in objects that portray their lives -- each student quickly comes up with a long list of subjects, ideas, memories, and passions that make up the details of his or her life. From there, we're off and running with multiple story ideas. It's a surefire why to kickstart any struggling writer's creativity.
This activity is a favorite of mine for self-reflection, as well. Although I can't pinpoint why this painting resurfaces in my mind over and over again, it has, and each time I find myself thinking about Harnett's work, I take some time to think about what would be found in my own similar portrait. Through the years some things change, of course -- I've traded in stacks of baby diapers for my childrens' college paperwork, for one! But many remain the same: dogeared journals, favorite books, a simple sapphire and diamond ring given to me by my parents on my thirteenth birthday, to name a few.
My newest idea is to take these multiple journal entries from over the years, turn them into poems, add photographs, and create a timeline of my life. As always, I am amazed by how contemplating works of art acts as a catalyst for my creativity as a writer. Ironic, since I know how helpful it is to my students. Perhaps I need to remember that what is good for creativity is always good, no matter the age of the artist.