Just What Is Art? These Students Now Have a Better Idea

In a blur of purples and blues, whites and greens, Sam Jacobson, 10, painted his interpretation of the Red Sea crashing in around Pharaoh's army. With a much lighter palette – shades of lavender and light blue – and in more random streaks, Sarah Demarest, 9, depicted the same scene.

In a very hands-on kind of way, the two budding artists at Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington learned that the answer to the age-old question, "What is art?" may be rather simple: Anything the artist envisions.

"I learned that not all paintings are portraits or superfocused on one thing," said Jacobson. "Some things can be bleary and abstract, and you can use all different colors."

The students learned this lesson last April from retired art teacher Gail Morrison-Hall, who introduced the fourth-grade Hebrew-school class to works by artists such as Marc Chagall, Georgia O'Keeffe and Ben Shahn. She then asked them to create their own modern paintings depicting scenes from the Passover story.

The results became the focus of the synagogue's first student art show. It has been on display for the entire summer in the building's "Staircase Gallery," a space previously used only for professional or adult congregants' work.

"I was really pushing with the kids that they didn't need to be literal," said Morrison-Hall, who brought in books about the different artists, and had the students do thumbnail sketches before they started painting.

"They thought abstract meant they could throw the paint at the paper, but I had to say, 'No, no, no, that's not what it means.' "

Some of the students, like Lindsey Vernick and Alex Rubin, both 10, were quickly inspired, and almost immediately rolled up their sleeves and began depicting what Morrison-Hall calls "archetypical themes in Judaism": the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea or Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.

Others, like Demarest, who had just seen her painting hanging in the gallery for the first time last week, had to try different scenes before settling on one that became hers alone.

Morrison-Hall said working with the fourth-graders was just the beginning of a year-long project; she hopes in September to work with one class per month so that by the end of next school year, she will have gotten around to all of the different age levels.

"Kids have wonderful vision and insight," declared Morrison-Hall. "[Art] is more than just creating little pictures – it extends the learning and ties everything together."



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