Today @ AK
Home > Education > Lesson Plans > Choose Your Words Carefully

Choose Your Words Carefully

Grades 3–12

© Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Table of Contents

Featured Works
What Your Students Should Know for This Lesson
Objectives
Materials
Activities by Grade Level
Additional Activities: The Word Tour
New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum
Audio


Featured Works
 

 
Ed Ruscha
(American, born 1937)
Electric, 1963
Oil on canvas 
72 x 67 inches (182.88 x 170.18 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Charles Clifton and Edmund Hayes Funds, 1987 

Background Information for Educators: Ed Ruscha (Roo-shay)

Like many of the visual artists of the 1960s, Ed Ruscha’s experiences as a young artist were in graphic arts and advertising. Born in Nebraska, Ruscha moved to the West Coast in 1956 and obtained his education at the Chouinard Art Institute, which is now known as the California Institute of the Arts. Before working for a while in advertising, he explains, “I began to see books and book design, typo­graphy, as a real inspiration. So I got a job with a book printer. He taught me how to set type, and then I started to see the beauty of typography and letter-forms. Somehow that led me off on this little path, almost like a bumper car, you know.” Soon he became inspired by East Coast artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were gaining fame for using and depicting objects from contemporary culture in their artwork. He had his first show with a group of artists in Los Angeles at the now famous Ferus Gallery in 1963, the year that this painting was completed. Ruscha is now well-known for paintings like Electric that incorporate words and phrases. In this simple, hard-edged composition, all of the artist’s choices contribute to ideas about electricity: the energizing electric blue background; the fiery warm orange and yellow inside the word itself; and the slant of the font and the placement of the word, which both imply movement.

Nancy Dwyer
(American, born 1954)
Kill Yourself, 1989
Vinyl paint on canvas
70 x 90 inches (177.8 x 228.6 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Gift of Olivia Badrutt, 2008
Background Information for Educators

 
 


What Your Students Should Know for This Lesson

Artists use their own language of color, shape, line, and texture to express different ideas about human communication. Some artists, like Ed Ruscha and Nancy Dwyer, paint words—often called text when they occur in paintings—to comment on how our system of visual communication works.

Make sure your students know basic facts about color and line before you use this lesson plan. If you are not an art teacher, ask the art teacher in your school if the students will be familiar with these concepts:

  • Warm colors advance, cool colors recede
  • Complementary colors (opposite each other on the color wheel) provide the most pronounced visual contrast of any colors when placed next to each other
  • Horizontal and vertical lines are most often used to convey a sense of order and a lack of movement (sometimes called stasis)
  • Diagonal lines are often used to convey movement


Objectives

  • Understand how elements of art (color, line, shape, texture, and imagery) work with text to communicate a message
  • Create two images: one in which text and art elements work together and one in which they conflict
  • Use knowledge to critically “decode” the messages used in advertising


Materials

  • Index cards
  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Photocopy machine
  • Crayons, markers, or paints
  • Advertisements collected from online and print media (optional)


Activities by Grade Level

 
Preliminary Activity for Grades K–5

  • Have students brainstorm a list of emotions: happy, sad, scared, lonely, etc. Put each word on an index card and have each student pick one and communicate it by using ONLY his or her body and facial expressions (no sound effects!).
  • Explore different fonts for text in advertisements and other print material.
  • Have students write their emotion in any font and size they like—block letters on a sheet of paper. Copy the word on another sheet of paper so they have two identical words.
  • Using ONLY colors, shapes, and lines, have students decorate one of their words (urge them not to include a drawing of a face or another recognizable object) so as to communicate the emotion.

Show slides #1–6 of the presentation Choose Your Words Carefully. 

  • How would students describe the opposite of their assigned emotion? All answers should be considered, but here are some ideas: Happy and sad are opposites—that’s easy. The opposites of other emotions are not so easy to name. For example: What is the opposite of lonely? (Playing with friends? Busy?) What is the opposite of scared? (Confident? Brave?)
  • Once they have opposite emotions identified, ask students to decide what colors, shapes, lines, and drawings they might use to express these states of mind or emotions and note them on a sheet of paper.
  • Have students use the second paper with their original emotion on it to create another work of art. This time have them choose colors, shapes, and lines that work against the idea of their emotion. They can use the ideas about colors, shapes, and content they brainstormed from their opposite emotion or state of mind.

Exhibit the pairs of drawings together. Have students explain through writing or presentations how they chose the elements of art for each one.

Activity Adaptation for Grades 8–12

Have students choose any word or short phrase and make a composition using objects, shapes, texture, lines, and colors that create an image that is in conflict with the word or phrase. Advise them to choose their fonts very carefully, too!

Additional Activities for Grades 8–12 
Explore How Advertising Uses Text and Image

Select a variety of advertisements from the Internet and/or printed media that contain text as a major element and discuss them critically. Ideas for discussion might include:

  • What message do you think the advertisement is trying to impart to you, the consumer?
  • How does the artist(s) who has created the ad use color, line, texture, text placement, and subject matter to support the message?
  • What would you change to reinvent the ad so it portrays the opposite of this message?

Can you find an ad that purposefully and successfully uses text to conflict with the message the advertiser might be trying to send? Why would they do this? Why do you think it is successful?

Can you find ads that use no text at all yet get across their message successfully?

Can you design an ad for an imaginary product that uses text to support its message? Can you design another that advertises the same product but whose message is the opposite of the first? 

New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • New York State Learning Standard for Social Studies 4
  • New York State Learning Standard for Technology 5
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 1, 2, 4, 7

Additional Activities: The Word Tour

 
Visiting DECADE: Contemporary Collecting 2002–2012 for “The Word Tour”

When you visit the Gallery, see what other works of art you can find that use text. Make sure you preview whatever selections you make—the Gallery often has works of art on view with adult content that is not immediately obvious until you read the words! Examples of works in the special exhibition DECADE: Contemporary Collecting 2002–2012 you might want to include are shown on the presentation slides #7–9.

Joseph Kosuth’s 'Three Color Sentence,' 1965

In this work, Kosuth replaces the word “word” in a phrase with the word “color.” He is interested in the ways that words and visuals work together to convey meaning. Kosuth is a conceptual artist—to him, the ideas behind the work are more important than the end product. 

Background Information

Ask an art teacher to familiarize your students with this basic information: the primary colors of painting are red, yellow, and blue; the primary colors of light are red, blue, and green. 

Discussion Ideas

  • Is this really a sentence? Why or why not?
  • What kinds of colors are the three he chose? What can you do with these colors to get other colors?
  • What other ways could you arrange the words or letters here to convey different meanings? Think of as many ways as you can.
  • What other colors could you choose? How would they change the meaning of the artwork?

New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 1, 2, 3
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2

Carrie Mae Weems’s “Colored People” Series, 1997

Carrie Mae Weems often turns her camera lens on herself and her family, documenting through her own African American experience. These works are from the “Colored People” series, in which Weems pokes fun at the “shades of blackness” people assign to themselves and others. By layering monochromatic color in each photograph with words that can have differing meanings and numerous interpretations, Weems creates a visual pun that begs one question: “What does color mean?” These photographs remind us that we all see through filters—whether they are cultural, social, learned, taught, or inherited.

Background Information

Blue Black Boy from Carrie Mae Weems's "Colored People" series. © 1997 Carrie Mae Weems

Ask a history teacher or African American studies professor for readings that can help your students understand how black culture has dealt with the issues around race and color in the United States since slavery was abolished. 

Discussion Ideas

  • Have students discuss or write about how they interpret these photographs. Students from different backgrounds may have very different ideas.
  • Ask students to write a short, fictional essay about the person depicted. What kind of character is each person? What are they doing? What happened right before and right after the picture was taken?
  • How many ways can you interpret the title of the series after looking at the images? What are the different ways?
  • What do you think “color” means to Carrie Mae Weems? In the context of this artwork, what does it mean to you?

New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies 1, 2, 5
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 1, 2, 3
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2

Lesley Dill’s Divide Light #2, 2002

This lesson plan explores the influence words have on visual artists and how text can be visually appealing. Lesley Dill is an artist who explores themes such as language, emotion, the body, and experiences through many different media. Born in Bronxville, New York, in 1950, Dill started out as a teacher in the 1970s, and retains an interest in teaching and community. She returned to graduate school in 1980 and began her career as an artist. Her artwork is often considered text-based. She describes speaking and listening as an intimate experience and, although her words are not always readable, she believes that the sheer presence of language can be comforting. The time she spent in New Delhi, India, where she explored Indian traditions, has had a major influence on Dill’s artwork. Her focus on the sensorial—skin, eyes, mouth, hands—elicits simultaneous feelings of strength and vulnerability in her artwork.

Dill’s sculpture Divide Light #2 embodies words from the poet Emily Dickinson, and is part of the “Divide Light” series. The words “divide light” are created out of paper and pinned to a cast of her own hand. Dill was inspired by the expressive Indian tradition of placing henna (a reddish dye made from the leaves of a henna shrub often used to dye the skin and hair) on hands, and replaced henna with words for this sculpture.

Supplies

  • Pencils
  • Paper
  • Telling Tales Presentation, Slide #8
  • Optional materials: Found objects, yarn, string, glitter, paint, magazines, etc.

Discussion

Read this poem by Emily Dickinson with your students.

Banish Air from Air . . .
Banish Air from Air -
Divide Light if you dare -
They’ll meet
While Cubes in a Drop
Or Pellets of Shape
Fit
Films cannot annul
Odors return whole
Force Flame
And with a Blonde push
Over your impotence
Flits Steam.

Have the students look at the image of Lesley Dill’s sculpture and ask the questions listed below. Remember that no answers are wrong, as students are interpreting what they see.

  • What do you see?
  • Can you read any of the words?
  • How does this poem relate to the sculpture?
  • What part of this poem do you think is part of the sculpture?
  • What title would you give Lesley Dill’s sculpture?

Write

Many artworks by Lesley Dill are greatly influenced by Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson’s work was very unique in the way she challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the work of other poets from the mid to late 1800s. Other poems by Dickinson that have inspired Lesley Dill include “A Single Screw of Flesh,” “I Felt My Life with Both My Hands,” and “These Saw Visions.”

Share some of Dickinson’s poetry with your class and compare it to other poetry they have read or written. How is it different? Have the students write a short free-verse poem.

Activity: Words to Art

Ask students to take the poem they have written and write it out in any font they choose (for example, block lettering, graffiti-style, calligraphy, etc.) on a piece of paper. Ask the students to select from the following activities to create an artwork:

  • Collage the letters from the poem onto a new piece of paper. Students can choose to re-arrange the letters to make new words or to make their poem undecipherable. Add drawn/collaged elements from magazines, books, etc.
  • Compile found objects to create a sculpture and paint the whole sculpture one color. Collage the poem onto the found objects, adding any other elements as needed.
  • Collect all of the students’ poems and cover a large found object (such as an old chair) with all the written poems. Have students decide how to arrange everything. Add other collage elements or objects as needed.

New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (Literature) 1, 2, 3, 10, 11
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (Literature) 4, 7, 9, 10

New York State Learning StandardS and Core Curriculum

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 1, 2, 4, 7
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing 1, 2, 3

Audio

  • Ed Ruscha's Electric: Audio for Younger Students

  • Ed Ruscha's Electric: Audio for High School Students

  • Ed Ruscha's Electric: Audio Description

  • Nancy Dwyer's Kill Yourself: Audio for Younger Students

  • Nancy Dwyer's Kill Yourself: Audio for High School Students

  • Nancy Dwyer's Kill Yourself: Audio Description

Gallery