As the classroom rhyme goes, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America. But there is more to the story of the explorer we celebrate with a federal holiday on the second Monday of every October. As historians have continued to learn and write more about the real life of Christopher Columbus, controversy has arisen over the validity of honoring the explorer as a hero.
This 1977 issue of Art to Zoo includes ideas for teaching about mollusks, a
brief history of the Smithsonian, and tips for gathering historical information
from gravestones. Click the PDF icon to download.
This 1985 issue of Art to Zoo demonstrates the ways that stamps can add a new level of interest to curriculum-based lessons. A lesson plan focuses on stamps that tell the story of westward movement in the United States. Click the PDF icon to see the issue.
A lesson plan in this 1980 issue of Art to Zoo shows how postage stamps can illustrate events and ideas within a single small picture, in this case, ideas and events related to westward expansion. A mini-article and pullout page about a postal mascot, Owney the Dog, is included (in English and Spanish). Click the PDF icon to see the issue.
Lesson plans in this 1992 Art to Zoo help students to understand and appreciate
these often misunderstood animals. Click the PDF icon to download the issue.
Activities in this 1988 issue of Art to Zoo help students better understand the plant and animal life of rainforests. Click the PDF icon to download the issue.
This 1978 issue of Art to Zoo introduces the basic principles of flight
through classroom study of balloons and gliders. Includes directions
for creating models of early gas balloons and gliders for a classroom air
show. Click the PDF icon to download.
This 1979 issue of From Art to Zoo details the technological history and historical significance of photography and cameras. Students use old photographs to learn more about life in the past.
Click on the PDF icon to download the issue.
Activities in this 1990 issue of Art to Zoo help students better understand light and symmetry. How? By experimenting with mirrors. Click on the PDF icon to download the issue.
A lesson plan in this 1990 issue of From Art to Zoo introduces students to the movement from the rural South to the urban North between the world wars. The students go on to write an article or essay based on an interview with a friend or family member who has had the experience of moving to a new place. Click on the PDF icon to download the issue.
This 1993 issue of Art to Zoo commemorated the opening of the Smithsonian's
National Postal Museum. In lesson plans, students evaluate and analyze letters,
as well as write their own. Click the PDF icon to download.
This 1986 issue of From Art to Zoo invites educators and their students to learn about India, its culture, and, especially, the lives of its children. Click on the PDF icon to download the issue.
This 1983 issue of From Art to Zoo includes lessons in which students delve into their community's past by creating a classroom museum of local history. Click on the PDF icon to download the issue.
A lesson plan in this 1994 issue of Art to Zoo looks at the many different kinds of exploration, including explorations of space. The focus is on the travels of such travel celebrities as Lewis and Clark, Christopher Columbus, Cortes, Charles Darwin, and the Vikings. Click the PDF icon to download the issue.
In a lesson in this 1995 issue of From Art to Zoo, students use the methods of archeologists to interpret objects from their own time—as if they were archeologists from the future. Try a quick warmup exercise with this gallery of artifacts from the mid-1990s, the time of the issue. Click the PDF icon to download the issue.
This 1996 issue of From Art to Zoo shows how these two ecosystems, while unique and very different, also have similarities. Emphasis is on the formation of the environments and the organisms that call them home. Students consider the roles of temperature, sunlight, waves, tides, and food chains.
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This issue of From Art to Zoo, published in 1987, the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, is intended to help students and teachers bridge the seeming gaps between the document and their own world. Click on the PDF icon to download the issue.
In the activities in this 1981 issue of Art to Zoo, students examine a collection of Alaskan Eskimo artifacts given to the Smithsonian by ethnographer Edward W. Nelson, "the man who collected worthless things." Click the PDF icon to download the issue.
This 1988 issue of Art to Zoo introduces students to efforts on the home front during
World War II, as illustrated by media messages. Students take on a wartime persona by
writing a V-mail letter. Included is a facsimile of a V-mail form. Click the PDF icon to download.
Starting out with the handheld paintings, which were done in the late 50's, Irwin is working alongside the abstract expressionists. This includes famous modern artists like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem De Kooning. Abstract expressionism is characterized by action packed, gestural marks that focus on color and form rather than representation of a tangible subject. The movement was concerned with emotion, catharsis, and the actual process behind the work, almost like a performance. The finished piece was a remnant of bodily expression. (See - "Lavender Mist"by Jackson Pollock, 1950.) Irwin, already a free thinker from the beginning of his career, decides to create abstract expressionist works that are considerably smaller than other artists working at the time, noting their "unfashionably small scale." Most artists were working large scale in an effort to use most of their body in the process. He creates a more intimate, personal aspect to the pieces, calling them "handheld" paintings. Obviously, since we are in a museum setting, they are displayed under glass for us to look at. However, in their original context, they are meant to be physically handled, turned, and looked at closely with a connection to our bodies. Each work is composed of dense, swirling oil paint in different shapes and formations. If we look at "Untitled", which seems to be mostly black, we can see many subtle different layers of color if we spend some time with it. Hues of orange and blue come to the muddy surface upon close looking. The wooden frames were built by Irwin himself, with the painting emerging above them, almost like a topographic map. The frame becomes a compositional element within itself, setting the painting in something definite. The works are heavily textural and almost three dimensional. Irwin is building up paint in certain areas, and scratching into it in others. He claimed that many of these pieces were completed in just one session, which was typical of abstract expressionist practices. In their original context, these works establish a relationship with the painting and the viewer. Viewing them at different angles, we can continue to pick out many different nuances in each work. Irwin was influenced by Zen Buddhist principles as well as many other American avant - garde artists, which influenced his acutely deliberate decisions and awareness in his work.
Moving on to the late line paintings, and passing through the early line paintings, we can see Irwin has abandoned his abstract expressionist style of working. He is interested in the simplification of a painting, reducing it to figure ground relationships established by the horizontal line. This reduction completely strips the painting of any representational subject, and introduces color and line. The paint is much thinner, with no textural definition. He lessens his emphasis on brushstroke which was implemented in the earlier line paintings. Now, we have no external associations to liken the painting to. While many of the earlier line paintings have titles, ("Crazy Otto") he decides to completely rid his work of any associations. Each painting depicts parallel lines, with usually only two colors. While the early line paintings had evidence of brushstroke in the background, the late line paintings are more refined. They have also increased in size, dominating our field of vision, and lack a frame. When actively looking at these, your eyes are continuously shifting focus, because holding both lines in your vision is impossible. Irwin was known to experiment with different colored strips of tape in varied lengths, to visualize different combinations. The last piece displayed in the gallery of "late line paintings" appears to be completely orange at first glance, but is subtly marked with two lines of another shade of orange. Large enough to consume our peripheral vision, it's an interesting optical experience as our eyes shift around the work. It's important to note that Irwin has dropped the use of the frame, and is exposing raw canvas on the sides for the first time.
In the next gallery, we jump to an incredible advancement in his artistic career: the dot painting. Upon entering the gallery, it appears to be a blank, aged canvas hanging on the wall. Walking a little bit closer, there appears to be a circular haze of light or energy emanating from the piece: in yellow, pink, and maybe purple. If we walk up to the line, and look closely, we will see hundreds of tiny dots in blue and faint red covering the canvas. The dots are more concentrated towards the center, and fade out towards the edges, with only the red continuing into the corners. The edges are left blank, which makes it appear to recede backwards. Irwin is using complementary colors that nearly cancel each other out the farther we step back from the piece. One thing to notice is that the canvas is shaped in a convex form, with the center bulging outwards towards the viewer. This emphasizes the vague, circular form of the piece when we view it from the middle of the gallery. Coinciding with the lack of dots on the edges, the shaped canvas brings the center into our field of vision while the edges hold back. The canvas is mounted onto a piece that elevates it off of the wall. The viewer's experience is directly influenced by the movement of their body within the space, and the amount of time they spend with the piece. Advancing into his career, Irwin decides to leave many of his pieces untitled, so they aren't associated with anything specific. By doing this, he leaves the interpretation of the piece up to the viewer's direct connection with it. This is also the first time that he shapes the canvas, giving a more sculptural element to the piece, which precedents the series of discs he creates afterwards.
The dot painting is a great precedent for the discs, as it introduces the convex circular form, and the obvious optical illusion that changes according to where you're standing in the gallery. For this tour, I'm focusing specifically on the "Untitled" piece from 1969. Irwin is using hand hammered acrylic to create a sculptural work, finally abandoning traditional painting in a bold step forward. We can also observe that Irwin isn't concerned with making a work that resembles a representational subject. We are confronted by a simple, pure, circular form that seems to blend in and out of it's surroundings. Irwin is carefully applying the paint in a gradient like form around the circular shape, with the disc laying horizontally on a lazy susan. The lazy susan ensured that Irwin was applying even layers of paint in concentric circles of varying colors. He used a paint gun that sprayed the acrylic paint on in a subtle, matte texture. The band in the center appears to be darker towards the middle of the piece, with the edges blurring into the background. The piece is backlit by a strong white fluorescent background, as well as another powerful light above it. When looking at "Untitled" straight on, we are unaware that it's sculptural at first. It seems to float in an indiscernible space, receding backwards yet also hovering towards us. When viewing the piece from the side, Irwin's entire illusion explains itself: the piece is mounted on an acrylic tube, attached to the wall behind it, propelling the disc forward. The entire room acts as a backdrop for the piece in this sense: the walls are bright, blank and sterile, the focal point of the entire gallery being the piece itself. Many of the wall texts are difficult to find throughout these rooms, because they were purposely set aside from the piece, in small text on a wall opposite from it. This decision was made to avoid detracting from the work itself.
Irwin's use of the distortion of space was implemented in his next artistic decision: abandoning his studio and working with installation and site specific pieces. For our last piece, we enter what seems to be an entirely blank room. With careful looking and movement throughout the space, we are able to make out what seems to be a straight wall, with a strange sense of depth to it. From looking one way, it's perceived as flat, but approaching it straight on, it seems as if we can jump right into the space. This is a piece created specifically for the Hirshhorn Museum, titled "Square the Circle." The Hirshhorn is a circular institution, and he is simply drawing a line through it, altering our perception of the space.The piece is composed of 120 feet of white transparent fabric called "scrim". This is a lightweight, fragile material that is generally used in theatre production. It is attached to a thin wooden framework with staples, weaving in between the ceiling. Looking into the corners of the room, we can see a dizzying void of white space. We are unsure of it's dimensions, where it starts and where it ends. Irwin plays on the viewer's expectations of art, creating a highly sophisticated work that seems to be hidden within the walls of the galleries, waiting to be found with patience and time.