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3rd Grade - Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jazz-Inspired Painting, Mind Maps, and Getting Your Work Out There

This month, 3rd grade has been learning about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat (1960-1988) was a famous painter during the 80’s who had a loose, improvisational method. His career began as a homeless graffiti artist selling postcard-sized work on the street for $10 a piece, and ended as a famous, internationally-selling artist in the top tiers of the art world.

After looking at Basquiat’s work and learning about how he was heavily influenced by jazz and hip hop music, the students watched a brief clip from a movie about Basquiat where you can see him painting a huge canvas in his studio to the sound of jazz music. We talked about rhythm, and how artists are often inspired by music. We talked about drumming your paintbrush with the beat or moving paint around like the notes on the saxophone. I emphasized that the students should listen very carefully and FEEL the music while they paint. I had no specific outcome in mind – just loose, improvisational painting inspired by jazz music. We used primary colors to keep it simple. After a demonstration of my own jazz-influenced painting process, I put on a Louis Armstrong video, and the students began to paint.

I was so pleased with how engaged the students were while they painted. When I asked how the process felt, many of them commented how they loved being able to paint whatever came to their minds.

The next week, we talked about how Basquiat included words and images in his work that were based on the things he read in books, heard on the TV or radio, or remembered from history. We made a mind map of the things that the students were learning in math, social studies, language arts, science, and art. Each student had the opportunity to add one word to the mind map.

After we created this collaborative mind map on the board, students used oil pastel over their paintings to draw words and pictures based on what was going on in their brains (they could pulls words from the mind map or add something new). In between this lesson and the next, I cut each artwork into postcard sized quarters. Cropping each image into fourths made for really beautiful, abstract compositions - especially when they're pieced together out of order.

The next lesson was an ART MARKET in the cafeteria! I had told the students in the beginning of this unit that we would be giving away our artworks to people in the school, just like real artists! We watched a short clip from a movie about Basquiat where he sees Andy Warhol walking into a restaurant, follows him in, and sells him some postcard-sized artworks for $10 a piece. We discussed how artists need to get their artwork out into the world, and how many famous artists start out by selling their art on the street. I included information about the art market in morning announcements, and asked specific teachers to bring their classes down to the market during a 20 minute time slot. We spent the first 10 minutes of class signing the artworks and reviewing possible answers to the questions: "How did you make this?" "What materials did you use?" "What was your inspiration?" and "Can you tell me about it?" I included a bowl at the entrance of the market with little slips of paper with these questions on them.

When student "customers" came down to the market, they took a slip of paper, asked an artist the question on it, and when the artist answered, the "customer" was able to take an artwork. The whole thing was a bit chaotic but really exciting and engaging. Teachers who brought their students down to the market commented later about how much the children loved it. It was also great to hear the 3rd graders responding to questions about their artwork and reinforcing their knowledge of their process, materials, and inspirations for this project.

Overall, the art market experience was great. Each class had a different grade level "customer" group come to the market. The difference between 4th grade customers and Kindergarten customers was really interesting variety. Afterwards, the students reflected on the experience. Some said they felt nervous, some were really excited, but everyone seemed excited about the fact that they sent their work out into the world in the hands of someone else. Some students held on to one or two pieces to give to another teacher, friend, or family member who wasn't able to come to the market.​

I highly suggest watching the films about Basquiat (not with children - he had some very destructive habits that eventually lead to his death). One of my favorites is a documentary called Basquiat: Radiant Child.

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