Teaching with Contemporary Art

Power(ful) Painting

Painting by Sierra Raglin, Nyack High School, New York

Painting by Sierra Raglin, Nyack High School, New York

In a recent unit with an introductory Studio Art class, my students created paintings that redefined power visually in a variety of ways. After looking at the work of Season 3 artists Ida Applebroog, Laylah Ali and Cai Guo-Qiang, students created sketches that literally and symbolically represented power from unique perspectives.

By viewing different segments grouped by a single theme, students had the opportunity to experience how three very different artists worked with the theme of power and depicted it in ways that included:

  • the power of one person over another
  • how groups of people wield power
  • the power of nature
  • the power of “doing nothing” and being an “innocent” bystander

As we moved through the unit it became clear that students were not just working with a theme, but working through the theme and discovering how they themselves saw power from different perspectives. The expectation that they would explore various approaches to redefining power visually set up a period prior to working on the finished paintings where they had to dig deeper and move beyond stereotypes and knee-jerk reactions. This produced beautiful and surprising results.

Painting by Samantha Clowes, Nyack High School, New York

Painting by Samantha Clowes, Nyack High School, New York

In a reflective class discussion after the paintings were complete , we talked about what made this unit different. More than one student remarked that seeing the videos and creating a variety of proposals for the paintings made them think about the theme over time, instead of coming up with final ideas quickly. Other students reflected on the fact that the paintings took shape through the sketching prior to the final piece.

Have you used Art:21 to get students to think about a particular theme in ways that produced surprising results?


  1. Nate Morgan says:

    while I have yet to have the my elementary students create a project based on Cai Guo-Qiang, they think his work is just the coolest thing that they have seen. They love the idea of him making a drawing by using a non-art process. Plus, they really like the explosions…..

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Nate, I’m interested in what kinds of “non-art process/materials” they have used….
    What were some of the questions that came up viewing Cai Guo-Qiang?

  3. Nate Morgan says:

    Hey Joe…

    My students (4th graders) were shocked that someone would let Cai Guo-Qiang use gunpowder to make a drawing. At the elementary level, kids seem to be encouraged NOT to draw anything with violent imagery (except in my class, I let them draw images that might be considered violent). The students are also interested in how detached he is from the making of the drawing. He doesn’t actually make the mark on the paper (though he sets the stage for the creation of the drawing) and they notice parellels between his work and Jackson Pollock. What is so nice about having students involved with contemporary art is that it opens up the conversation about what constitutes an Art material.

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