Combining text and art to teach writing in prison or out

Writing Assignment

I wanted to try something new. I wanted my students to combine text with art. Nothing fancy like oil painting. Nothing that needed a sink or even much workspace. I tried it with a third grader and I tried it with adults.

But the thing was, when I drew a boat it looked like a banana. I was a writer, not an artist. So where did I come off teaching art? Well, I thought, I do know about art, and I wasn’t exactly aspiring to teach my students how to chisel a chunk of marble. I was not out to step on the toes of a true teaching-artist by posing as one, myself. In fact, I made no bones to my students about the fact that I was not much of a visual artist at all and that they might know plenty more about it than I. But why not plunge in anyway, I thought? Why not model the kind of risk-taking-flirtation-with-failure I continually urge upon my students – and combine all that with some trust in human ingenuity?

Anyway, as my friend the artist/sculptor, Pat Keck, said:
“Art can’t be taught. You can teach people how to recognize and develop ideas. We’re all creative until suddenly we stop. Usually because someone “showed” us how to draw and then we think we can’t or we’re not good enough. I think everyone has ideas but they’ve been taught to suppress them. Finding a funny shaped stick can lead to an idea. Picasso found an old bicycle seat and made brilliant sculpture out of it.”

I teach writing with a similar philosophy. I don’t give my students specific topics. Instead, I design strategies that boost my students back into their neglected imaginations to emerge with their own authentic ideas; and I urge them to manifest their ideas with the use of image – much as, (I show them) Edward Hopper does by painting a woman sitting alone at a café table, Allan Crite by painting children playing in a Boston city street. You don’t hear Hopper or Crite using words to tell us what they are saying about the human experience, I tell my students. Same with writing. Writers must “paint” a specific image with words in a way that reveals its greater metaphoric meaning to both reader and writer.

So, I thought, to further emphasize my point, why not have my students no matter what age, literally draw what they just “drew” with words, either emotively with abstract imagery, or representationally? Then they could combine the two into a single and singular piece of art.

But I needed an example, something to concretely illustrate for my students what I saw in my head. There are many artists who combine text and image, but thanks again to Pat Keck, I found the perfect example in the work of Lynda Barry, specifically, her book called, “What It Is.”

The book, by coincidence, is about writing, art, and creativity, but mostly, I wanted it for what was on the pages – every one a free-standing artistic work by a self-described writer, painter, and cartoonist who – judging from her artistic philosophy and humor – would have liked my boat-banana.

And so I got to work. First, I made my own poem/illustration combo that I found to be an indispensable means of understanding the project’s challenges. Then I shared it for a critique with my class of adult learners and the third grader who came to my house as a private student for writing enrichment. For the class, I devoted eight ninety-minute sessions to writing and revising. Some students completed one to three poems, others a short memoir or story. In the four to six subsequent weeks of class, my students worked independently to produce a single or multiple 8 x 10 pieces of artwork that combined their text with illustration. The students who finished their drawings and collages sooner than others, returned to using class-time exclusively for writing. At home, I scanned and copied their work-in-progress, and for students without access to the internet, I googled and printed drawings of carousels, Bengal tigers, angels, and a diagram of a human heart. They either worked off of them to draw their own image, or they used them for collage and colored them in.

I asked my nine-year-old student to think of a word that was a thing: a noun. She chose “Jail.” Then I asked her to draw what she felt when she thought about jail, not what she thought a jail looked like. In this way, and with a look at my own example, in five minutes she understood and applied the concept of abstraction. Then I asked her to write the first thing that came to mind when she thought of jail. She wrote: “Take me into the world and my family so I can be free.” And then I asked her to make that sentence part of her drawing. The project took one hour start to finish.

If I taught art in any formal way at all, it was to introduce and help my students define abstract art, and to clumsily demonstrate the versatility of the crayon, pastel, and charcoal – techniques my students did not hesitate to adopt and improve upon. I found myself saying, “Be messy! Be silly! Be whimsical! It doesn’t have to be perfect! And if you don’t like it, just put it aside and start again.” No different from what I say when I teach writing.

Asked how she benefited from the project, one woman said, “When you have to show the picture, you want to go more into detail in the writing so that when a person sees the picture with the writing, they’ll say, ‘I know exactly what she’s talking about.’”Another student simply shrugged her shoulders and said it was fun.

That was good enough for me.

Wicked Ride Art

Art titled “Wicked Ride.” Download accompanying student text here.

1. Primary goal: To enable students to discover for themselves how writing must be visual and specific by offering them the opportunity to illustrate their written work.

2. To combine two forms of artistic expression.
3. To engage students who are reluctant to write but eager to draw, by offering a writing class with an art component.
4. To offer independent and self-paced learning methods.
5. To offer students the opportunity for lively social interaction around a shared activity, which encourages mutual respect and cooperation.

• 7-pack Staedler markers
• 12-pack Crayola crayons
• colored pencils
• pastels
• charcoal
• #2 pencils
• glue sticks
• erasers
• card stock paper
• color copies of fine art printed out in different dimensions (ie: 4-6 copies per 8×10 page).
• scissors, but tearing also creates an interesting effect.
• Note: One woman, who chose not to draw, illustrated her story with images torn from paintings by Hopper, Matisse, and other artists.
• 10 packs of 11×14 pre-cut matts for exhibiting student work.

1. Discuss illustrations/text by Lynda Barry from “What It Is.”
2. Do what you teach, as in: you, as the teacher make your own drawing or collage to illustrate your own poem, story, or memoir, so as to intimately understand what you are asking of your students.
Note: As with writing, I found that I preferred not to plan out the piece. When I just began to draw, I discovered that one idea spawned the next. Devote class-time to generating written work: poetry, fiction or prose.
3. Devote class-time to drawing and collage. Restrict the dimension to 8X10 for a scanner, and for publication in book-form. But if you want to matt it I learned (through my own mistake!) that you must measure the artwork’s dimension to the dimensions within the matt frame. They are smaller than 8X10.
4. Have students matt their work for exhibit.

Peggy Rambach currently teaches Creative Writing and College Writing to incarcerated men and women. She has taught writing to 5th through 12th grade, for Chatham University and University of New Hampshire’s creative writing graduate programs, and in health and elder care facilities, VA outpatient clinics, social service centers, and programs in the medical humanities. She is the author of two novels, a collection of short stories and the editor of two anthologies of memoir that emerged from her work in the healing arts.