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the shape of space
The Shape of Space

A good way to get students to think about composition and the character of shapes is to have them work with what to them is an unconventional format. Looking at some creative uses of non-rectilinear formats can help them. Have them work with a round or cylindrical format first before drawing attention to examples, but have examples as background inspiration and/or items to study and discuss over time

Within this process, I encourage you to make students aware of how socially constructed one’s sense of space is. Students exploring the world through art and/or history and/or geography or the like can gain a richer understanding of each realm if they see how the art examples often (though not always) reflect larger social patterns.

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I, 1963

Taos kiva

Anasazi/Ancestral dwelling of Tuipmuo at Bandelier

Taos Pueblo

Albuquerque settlement 1893 and the grid system relative to natural topography in comparison

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I, 1963

Taos Pueblo

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) begun with the Land Ordinance of 1785, which Thomas Jefferson devised

Components of the Land Ordinance of 1785 system

U.S. map showing where PLSS has been deployed and aspects of it.

The impact and resulting look of the PLSS system in the Midwest

Aerial view of Indiana

Federal land policies relating to the Homestead Act helped produce settlement keyed to the PLSS. The homesteading system had its origins in 1840s and became law as the Homestead Act in 1862. The delay was caused by Southern resistance to this smaller, agrarian approach to land holding.

Aerial view of North Dakota & Minnesota

Try to help students learn a variety of human settlement patterns so they don’t take their own as the only “normal” one.

France below & Indana above

French survey of a North American local

How we relate to the land may significantly influence how we see the world and respond to it

France below & Indiana above

Hannah & Emm Greenlee, Crazy Quilt, c. 1827-1896

Though, other influences also play an important role as the “Picturing America” booklet and the Vlach material on our bibliography propose and students should study in terms of cultural transmissions and notions of shape, rhythm, life, etc.

France below & Indiana above

Kente cloth of the Ashanti in Ghana

Hannah & Emm Greenlee, Crazy Quilt, c. 1827-1896

The ‘ledger book’ format relative to painting on animal skin and wearing that imagery or living in it speaks to the imposition of the grid system and much of how it came to acquire meaning on cultures which had different relationship to land

Indiana above

Edward Thomas, View of Fort Snelling, c. 1850, MIA

George Catlin, Catlin Painting Mandan, Mah-to-toh-pa, 1861

Black Hawk, “Sans Arc Lakota” Ledger Book, 1880-81

Aerial view of Indiana

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, MA, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), 1836

Encourage students to contemplate the complex relationship between a natural order and the Enlightenment-based order -- as Transcendentalists and Hudson River School artists did, though not necessarily siding with the natural order to the degree people long assumed, as Albert Boime (The Magisterial Gaze) and others have discovered.

N.C. Wyeth’s 1919 cover illustration for James Fenimore Cooper’s, 1826 Last of the Mohicans

Cole, The Oxbow, 1836

Help students probe the complex cultural legacies informing such world views.

Consideration of this has serious environmental consequences as you can help students start to learn

Alex MacLean, Marias River Drainage & Piovt Irrigator Loma Area, MT, 2003

Taos Pueblo

It is increasingly important to teach the long history of America and fully picture it including the complex history of the “Anasazi”/Ancestral Pueblo. (See: Jared Diamond, Collapse, for more on this.)

Canyon de Chelly & White House ruins, Anasazi (or Ancestral Pueblo), c. 1000; abandoned by c. 1300; extant & influential today

Taos Pueblo

Cole, The Oxbow, 1836

Childe Hassam, Allies Day May 1917, 1917

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I, 1963

Help students learn the prominent role of the grid in culture and art…

Cole, The Oxbow, 1836

Childe Hassam, Allies Day May 1917, 1917

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I, 1963

Help students learn the prominent role of the grid in culture and art…

and also rich alternatives to it in both realms