Portraits of Value

Objective: Students will create a portrait that honors an elder's story.

Prelude: Inform students of the project and explain how it is important for us to listen and honor the stories of our elders. Inform students that we will be interviewing individuals at a local senior center and creating a portrait that honors their story. I reached out to The Kuehner House, a Senior day center in Washington D.C. where senior citizens come together for activities and services that support their independence, and reduce their isolation and loneliness. I recommend that you take the time to reach out to and connect with organizations within your community. During ELA, teachers worked with students to develop questions to ask for their interviews. If classroom teachers are unable to participate, spend time developing these interview questions during art.

Day 1: Students visited the Kuehner House and they were each paired with an individual. Students interviewed their partner and asked them a series of questions to help better understand their life story. Students then either took a picture of their partner or we made a copy of a photograph that was meaningful to them.

Day 2: Students reviewed their interview and choose one of the photographs they took to use as a reference. Students created a sketch for their portrait and thought of creative ways they could incorporate details from the interview.

Day 3: Students began a full scale drawing of their portrait using contour lines.

Day 4: I began by introducing students to the work of Amy Sherald (Lead a 'See, Think, Wonder'). We then watched Amy Sherald talk about her work. After the video, I asked students: 'Why does Sherald paint her subjects in grey scale?' After a brief conversation, I taught students how to use a pencil to create a value scale. Students then used those skills to add value and shading to their portraits.

Day 5: I began by having students reflect on their initial interview. What did they learn when listening to their partner's story? How could they use what they learned to help visually tell that story? They then took the time to add those important details to their portrait and began adding watercolor to the background.

Day 6: Students added final details and completed their portraits. We concluded by having everyone share their portrait and their partner's story with one another.

Day 7: Students brought their portraits and a letter with them to visit the Seniors at Kuehner House. Once at the center, students presented their artwork and letter to the individual they were partnered with.
Note- Students wrote a letter during ELA class. If you are not able to collaborate with the classroom teacher, you can have students write a letter during art. The letter detailed what each student learned about their partner's story and how they translated that visually into their portrait.

Reflection: Allow a time for students to reflect on their experience. Some questions to ask include:

  • What was something they learned?

  • What did they feel was successful?

  • What was the most challenging part?

Artists & Inspiration

Portraits by Amy Sherald

More Student Work

Check out my Blog Post with more Student examples