An Art Imposter in the Museum

Ox and Cart by Van Gogh recreated by Mr. Longfellow with paper towels, paper bag, tape, marker, towels, shoes, pillow, & Gus.

Teachers across the country have been rising to the challenge presented by this spring’s abrupt school closures due to Covid-19. Here in Portland, teachers are not only adapting their lessons to new distance-learning formats, they’re also thinking hard about students’ emotional well-being and about equity in education. They’re checking in with students as often as possible through platforms such as Google Classroom and Seesaw and they’re designing lessons with the awareness that students’ experiences and access to resources at home vary widely across the district. For visual art teachers, like Anne Rybak at Metropolitan Learning Center, “It is more important than ever to focus on the arts right now. We’re in a crisis. Art projects allow families to come together, to work together, to have a distraction. There’s such value in art as therapy and as a way to develop problem-solving skills.”  

At the start of the closure, Portland Public Schools Visual Arts district leader Carolyn Hazel Drake acted quickly to bring together a team of teachers and create a sequence of themes and lessons for Kindergarten through 12th-grade distance learning. (These lessons are publicly available and provide a rich resource for teachers and families everywhere.) This past week, the teachers reached out to PAM Learning and Community Partnerships staff to collaborate on an assignment inspired by the Getty Museum Challenge. Students would recreate a work of art from PAM’s collections using materials, people, and even pets at home.

The assignment will help students build visual thinking skills because, Rybak explains, “It takes you on a journey. You have to really observe in order to recreate.” Students—and adults—notice new details of a work as they plan how to reconstruct it and the project encourages students to stretch their imaginations as they look for alternatives that mimic the shapes, colors, and textures of the original artwork. “This project is such a good companion for looking around home for art materials—which we’re encouraging,” Drake says, “and it’s such a good project for discovery and imagining.” Jay Longfellow, art teacher at James John Elementary, adds, “It draws you in because it’s fun. Kids love getting to act out on camera. And they have to be creative—Oh, it’s just a bunch of oranges. Oh wait, we don’t have oranges. I need something else round and orange.” 

The teachers wanted the assignment to connect specifically with the Portland Art Museum as the students’ local museum and they asked PAM staff to offer suggestions and feedback on a slideshow of recommended works. They knew they wanted to represent a wide range of cultures. “It is powerful for students to see people that look like them represented in museum artwork,” Vestal Elementary teacher Amy Steel observes. At the same time, they wanted to be respectful of the artists’ intentions and the cultural meanings of the original artworks. Native American Art Curator Kathleen Ash-Milby and Associate Curator of Japanese Art Jeannie Kenmotsu both offered valuable guidance, advising the teachers to avoid ceremonial objects by Indigenous artists, to contact living Native artists for permission to use their work, and to steer clear of works that might encourage ethnic masquerade.

The result is a wonderfully diverse collection of images that encourages students to play, to reflect, to have fun, and to find themselves in the artwork. We think you’ll enjoy doing this project, too:

Find a work of art that inspires you—PAM’s Online Collections are a great place to start. Spend a few minutes looking closely. What shapes do you see? What do you notice and wonder? What story is the artist telling?

Now, recreate the artwork with materials you have at home. Assemble your backdrop, objects, people or pets to recreate your scene. Take a photo.

(Adapted from the PPS lesson An Art Imposter in the Museum.)

If you choose to share it online, be sure to tag us @portlandartmuseum #PAMartchallenge #Museumchallenge. 

And take a moment to give a big thank you to the educators in your life.

Image Credit: Vincent van Gogh, Charrette de boeuf (The Ox Cart), July 1884, oil on canvas, Gift of Fred and Frances Sohn, public domain, 2007.68. Recreated by Jay Longfellow, art teacher at James John Elementary School, with paper towels, paper bag, tape, marker, towels, shoes, pillow, & Gus.

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