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Ladder for Booker T. Washington. Use the very odd, puzzling nature of this work to get students to explore it and its subject matter. Art teachers can use it to have students consider one-point perspective: what it is; its powers, and its limitations.

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Ladder for booker t washington l.jpg
Ladder for Booker T. Washington

Use the very odd, puzzling nature of this work to get students to explore it and its subject matter.

Art teachers can use it to have students consider one-point perspective: what it is; its powers, and its limitations


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Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy & Mystery in the Streets, 1914


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All can and should use this to have students investigate who Booker T. Washington was and how this work relates to Washington. (Even students focusing on the technical aspects of perspective can and should do this. They will learn how form and content relate.)


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Puryear says in the Booker T. Washington was and how this work relates to Washington. (Even students focusing on the technical aspects of perspective can and should do this. They will learn how form and content relate.)PBS Art:21 series interview, this part of which is available online, that he made the sculpture first and gave it the title later. He goes on to say how the work is, without question, about Washington (though not that alone) and how Washington was “the antithesis [of] W.B. DuBois…”


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Have students learn who DuBois was, as well as who Booker T. Washington was. Have them learn about the debate between them and the legacy of that difference (e.g., King and Malcom X).

Get them to associate values inherit in that debate to this work (e.g., ‘step-by-step’ and contending with a long, ordeal but with transcendental objectives of freedom.) Direct them toward appropriate associations with Civil Rights struggles such as the importance of spirituals (“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) and why they were so important. Consider having them develop or find imagery appropriate to DuBois (but make sure that it speaks to DuBois and not caricatures keyed to Washington’s opposite).


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Consider having them compare and contrast these 2, ‘Washington’ portraits. The National Portrait Gallery has a rich site to help students study the Stuart

Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996, as exhibited at the National Gallery, Washington

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1796


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Make use of it and also have them consider the differing iconographies -- the classical heritage used to speak about George Washington. Also, his “visibility” in the portrait relative to Booker T’s “invisibility.”And, work-related and the garden (ladders and trellises) iconography of the Booker T. portrait.

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1796


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What can we learn about people and times from portraits? How do they: speak to values and how do values speak about history; who writes history and how have different people conversed about matters and we continue those conversations today?

John Trumbull, George Washington at the Battle of Trenton, 1783

Horatio Greenough, George Washington, 1841

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1796


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Which of these do you prefer (and how do they resemble one another)?

John Trumbull, George Washington at the Battle of Trenton, 1783

Charles Willson Peale, George Washington, 1789

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1796


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Consider showing them photographs of Washington and Puryear and ask them why Puryear might have Washington on his mind. Note that Puryear was born in 1941 and use that to have them learn something tangible about the Civil Rights movement


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Ask them to think about who is on their minds, how they might portray that individual, or what extant image best portrays that person. (Use these possibilities as an art activity, as a means of bringing history to life, and/or as a media studies activity.)

Copley, Paul Revere, 1768

Mary Cassatt, The Boating Party, 1893


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Consider having students wrestle with contending images of types and individuals as a way of wrestling with matters of image making and history

Gardner, Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 5, 1865

Charles Willson Peale, George Washington, 1789

Hiram Powers, Ben Franklin, 1862


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Puryear is the sculptor of the Walker Sculpture Park’s types and individuals as a way of wrestling with matters of image making and historyAmpersand, 1987-88 and they have some material on his making of it, which was done here in Minnesota


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