St. Michael paintings transport viewers
A painting hanging in a St. Michael Special School hallway shows two men, parked in a remote Western locale, seated inside a 1930s jalopy.
The landscape’s big sky and emerald mountains were rendered by the artist in bold strokes of acrylic paint.
However, a closer examination of the artwork’s focal point reveals a little surprise: the jalopy and its smiling passengers weren’t painted; they were clipped from a vintage photograph and découpaged onto the canvas.
The riveting multi-media artwork, by St. Michael student William Bosch, is part of a 12-piece series that showcases the evolution of American transportation from the canoe – a mainstay of pre-Colonial, Native American transportation – to the rocket ship that heralded the Space Age.
“This is how we are following U.S. history this year, through the theme of transportation,” said St. Michael social studies teacher Tim Duffy of the display of student-produced art, which includes canvases devoted to the Mayflower, the steamboat and the Model T. “Every time I teach history, whether it’s U.S. or world history, I come up with a theme and make a timeline (using the theme),” Duffy said.
Each painting, executed in the classroom of St. Michael art teacher Pam Strohmeyer, will be used as a launching pad for the study of a different period of American history. For example, Austin Fairchild’s painting of an early-model submarine will initiate his classmates’ study of the Civil War; Matthew Clark’s depiction of The Spirit of St. Louis – the 1927 airplane that carried Charles Lindbergh on the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight – will spark their examination of World War I; and Bosch’s jalopy, parked in its dusty surroundings, will kick off a unit on the Great Depression.
“We have just finished the Revolutionary War and we’re about to get into the age of expansion,” said Duffy, who will teach students about the young nation of the late 1700s and early 1800s by sharing the stories of the U.S.S. Constitution, a naval ship built in 1797, and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, the country’s first common carrier, chartered in 1827.
There are many advantages to incorporating a large, pictorial timeline into the study of history, Duffy said. Because the transportation series is mounted in chronological order along the hallway, passersby can see that it took just 30 years for Americans to progress from the covered wagon of Westward expansion to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. The timeline also illustrates at least one historical irony: Americans were able to achieve winged flight five years before the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.
Student Tyler Davis’ painting of the Higgins boat, manufactured in New Orleans and used most famously to deliver American troops to Normandy Beach, will be front and center when he and his classmates study World War II later in the school year. Davis, 18, said that when Strohmeyer offered his class examples of transportation on which to base a painting, he requested the Higgins boat because of his interest in combat strategy.
“I really wanted to know about the Higgins boats because they carry troops to take control of beachheads in enemy-controlled territories, like the German-controlled territories and sometimes Italian-controlled territories,” said Davis, a self-described World War II buff since the fifth grade. “They stop right at land, and all the troops will start running out of the Higgins boat, try to get in there and try take control of other beachheads. They just run right there and they try to get past the German MG 42 (machine gun) placements.”
The artworks, which employ the same multi-media technique of pairing a photograph with freehand painting, were completed in Strohmeyer’s art classroom over the first nine weeks of school. The students also researched their transportation-related topic and downloaded and enlarged photographic images under the guidance of their computer teacher, Aurora Cabarcos.
Teaching approaches vary
Duffy integrates different learning experiences into each chapter of history. For example, students made a 3-D model of the Mayflower during their study of the Pilgrims. A puppet show will complement students’ study of the B&O Railroad, and selected readings from Mark Twain will enhance their understanding of mid-1800s steamboat travel.
Duffy placed a question mark at the end of the timeline – to spur a future conversation about what students think “the next big thing” in transportation will be.
Student Tucker Selg was assigned the task of making a painting of Paul Revere’s ride – perhaps the nation’s most famous example of equine transportation – as a means of introducing his classmates to the Revolutionary War.
“I was excited because I ride horses and I know a lot about horses,” said Selg, 17, noting that the most difficult part of his artwork was painting the shadow of a tree onto a house and mixing various shades of brown paint to add texture to the ground.
The main lesson of his project will stick with him forever. Said Selg: “Paul Revere was the one that said the British were coming!”