This is Glenn Ligon. He is an artist. He is alive. He is young. He is working (a lot). His work is in museums all over the world, including the National Gallery of Art. His message is powerful. His art is rooted in history and literature and it begs the viewer to look deeper–past the familiar sight of words on a page–to find meaning from words not his own, but words said by others and given new meaning through his art.
This is a photo of black sanitation workers who went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Dangerous conditions, mistreatment, and discrimination led to this ongoing protest that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech. Glenn Ligon was inspired by the simple yet powerful signs and reinvented them in his own piece, Untiled (I Am a Man), in 1988.
Ligon’s work tells a story. His work is inspired by the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Jackson, and Richard Pryor, as well as historic events like the Million Man March, the Civil Rights movement and the aftermath of slavery.
In celebration of Black History Month, our 3rd graders are learning about what it means to be a contemporary artist. We are exploring what it means to make art that is more than just beautiful–art that has a message to share, an opinion, an idea.
We discussed oxymorons as a literary concept as well as an artistic one. We explored the way you can juxtapose two words of opposite meanings to create something completely new. We maturely discussed antiquated words that no longer belong in our language and that feel harmful due to the history attached to them. We observed the ways artists such as Ligon embrace these words to help reshape new identity.
We better understand now why an artist like Ligon would choose to make works of art full of powerful text and then choose to make them illegible. We decided that the harder something is to see, the more we want to try and see it. The more invisible it appears, the more powerful the words become when we are able to uncover them.
The 3rd graders worked hard to begin understanding the more complex goals of conceptual art. We wanted to see if we could work in the same style as Glenn Ligon so we found famous quotes by African Americans and set to work on stenciling the text. The goal was to use color, size, or design to take the already powerful words of the quote and make them even more impacting through our unique compositions.
We worked in the same media used by Ligon to better understand his process–oil pastels and stenciled text. The way the pastels smear across the paper when you lift the stencil help to create the illegible feel that is a signature of Ligon’s work.
Here are the quotes that served as inspiration for our 3rd grade black history month project Read until you find a quote that inspires you. Select the words you would choose to add color or larger text to in order to express deeper meaning. Be able to defend your reasons.
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. – Barack Obama
Yes we can. – Barack Obama
There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. – Barack Obama
He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life. – Muhammad Ali
Don’t count the days, make the days count. – Muhammad Ali
If my mind can conceive it; and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it. – Muhammad Ali
When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world. – George Washington Carver
Without a struggle, there can be no progress. – Frederick Douglass
If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else. – Nikki Giovanni
Man, if you gotta ask you’ll never know. – Louis Armstrong
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.- Martin Luther King, Jr.
I decided I wasn’t going to come down. I was going to fly. I was going to stay up in the air forever. –Jesse Owens
Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I believe that every single event in life happens is an opportunity to choose love over fear. – Oprah Winfrey
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. – Maya Angelou
Life is short, and it’s up to you to make it sweet.– Sadie Delany
You can fall, but you can rise also. – Angelique Kidjo
Success doesn’t come to you…you go to it. – Marva Collins
It isn’t where you come from; it’s where you’re going that counts. – Ella Fitzgerald
I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go. -Langston Hughes
It’s a long old road, but I know I’m gonna find the end. -Bessie Smith
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
I don’t know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future. – Ralph Abernathy
As I give, I get. – Mary McLeod Bethune
Truth knows no color; it appeals to intelligence. – James Cone
Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. – Miles Davis
When I discover who I am, I’ll be free. – Ralph Ellison
Question everything. Every stripe, every star, every word spoken. Everything. – Ernest J. Gaines
Do not call for black power or green power. Call for brain power.- Barbara Jordan
The strong man is the man who can stand up for his rights and not hit back. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
The time is always right to do what is right. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
The only safe ship in a storm is leadership. – Faye Wattleton