Romare Bearden’s collage can be discussed in two different ways: one relating to the ancient parable about the prodigal son, and the other based on Bearden’s life as an interpretation of the parable based on contemporary society. Presenting your class with two versions of the story, set in different times and places and involving different sets of characters, illustrates how artists can find inspiration to create art based both on literature and daily life.
The first part of the discussion should take place prior to showing your students Bearden’s collage. This discussion relates to the parable of the Prodigal Son. Read the following narrative. When finished, ask students to summarize the story, focusing on the characters, setting, and events. The story can be relayed as follows: “Once, many years ago, somewhere in the Middle East, lived a wealthy man with two sons. Each of them was given a share of his father’s money and possessions. The oldest son stayed home and worked hard, helping his father with their animals and crops. The younger son left home and traveled all over, spending his money wisely. After a number of years, he found himself penniless and homeless. He returned home to his father, apologizing for his careless behavior. Rather than punishing the irresponsible youth, his father hugged him, gave him new clothing, and had a great feast prepared to welcome his son home. The older son thought that this was unfair and was angry. Although his father understood his anger, he explained, ‘Your brother was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found.’”
After your discussion of the Prodigal Son parable, show your students Bearden’s collage. Ask them to look closely at the work and the different elements of the collage. Making a list and sharing their observations with the class can guide discussion on the work’s meaning. Inform students about title of the work, Return of the Prodigal Son, and how Bearden was inspired by the parable. Share the following quote from Bearden about the artwork: “The Prodigal Son has left North Carolina, gotten into bad company, and has come back to the ‘old folks,’ his home, where, as Robert Frost says, when no one else wants you, they got to take you in.” Ask students similar questions about the artwork’s characters, setting, and events, including what the different elements of the collage represent, in order to support their answers.
To connect the discussion to the artmaking activity, ask students to think about their own families, friends, or childhood memories. Is there one distinct setting that comes to mind? Who are the characters or subjects in this memory? What is the event? What elements or objects are present in that memory? Have students write down their responses and brainstorm the different visuals that come to mind when they reflect on their memories. Instruct students to bring in old photographs or copies of family pictures and collage materials for their artworks.