It is September and time to begin a new preschool school year. This past summer I thought a lot about what our theme should be for the year and finally settled on “Through The Year With The Alphabet and Artists” because I would be able to combine three things that I love: nature, words and art!
The artist that we will focus on in September is Jasper Johns. Jasper Johns is an American painter, sculptor and print maker. He is probably best known for his painting “Flag”. His paintings use conventional objects and symbols, or, as he said, “things the mind already knows” to create or elicit meaning. Jasper Johns created several paintings of the alphabet. In his “Colored Alphabet” painting he portrays all twenty-six letters in a grid-shape in alphabetical order.
On the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art website they explain, “Johns deliberately selected the alphabet as his subject because it is the basis for all our written language, the building blocks of print… And yet the shapes of the letters bear no meaning on their own. Without an understanding of the written code, the letters are just shapes (consider how lost English-language readers feel when faced with a line of Chinese characters, for example). The lines of letters make no words, and yet they are aligned in the familiar order we are taught as children, from a to z, left to right, top to bottom. It is possible to “read” the painting this way and make sense of it: Aha! It’s the alphabet! (Meaning!) This particular sequence of letters, like the stars and stripes of our flag, is heavily loaded with all the potential meanings the alphabet represents, from the simple phrases of Dick and Jane to Man’s Search for Meaning. And yet, each of the letters is just a letter, devoid of literal meaning.”
So, how to simplify Jasper Johns for children? I talked the children through the book, Where is Jasper Johns? by Debra Pearlman. The age range for this book is 8 and up, so the children and I just looked at the pictures and talked through the art in a very, very simple way! I also printed up copies of four of Jasper Johns’s paintings: Target With Four Faces, Colored Alphabet, O Through 9, and Map. Then I used those pictures to illustrate a simple poem that I made up: Jasper Johns, Jasper Johns; He painted targets with faces on; He painted the alphabet and numbers too; He painted maps and so can you! They loved chanting this little rhyme and pointing to the correct pictures.
The idea for the Jasper Johns art project that my preschoolers would do was simple. I drew a grid on watercolor paper and penciled in the alphabet. I traced over a few of the letters with oil pastels to give the children an idea of what they could do and then let them loose with the oil pastels! The 3 year-olds’ capabilities ranged from wonderful scribbled designs to quite competent letter-tracing skills. The four year-olds, however, were consistently capable of tracing the letters of the alphabet. After the children had finished with the oil pastels, I gave them liquid watercolors to paint over the paper. This art technique is called wax resist and is based upon the fact that water and oil don’t mix. Because they had first created a design using the oil pastels, they created a space where the water colors wouldn’t go but would just bead off of the wax. I was really pleased with the way that this art project turned out!