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In our tours for student & teacher groups at the Whitney, we usually focus on three to four works of art in the exhibition, taking the time to look and discuss each piece in depth. Lately we’ve been working a lot with the painting above, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ballet Skirt or Electric Light, 1927.
This painting is fun to work with when talking about abstraction, since it shows how there can be multiple interpretations of one image— even for the artist!
We begin our conversation with students by bringing up the title right away. We ask students questions like “Who sees a ballet skirt? What do you see that reminds you of a ballet skirt?” We then ask similar questions regarding the other part of the title. This usually develops into a lively discussion; students notice the apparent layers of ballet tulle, the texture of the painted fabric, the contrast of the full skirt and the tiny waist, or the light slowly emerging from a small bulb and the warmth of the colors that give the appearance of a soft glow.
Ai Wee Seow and I have done similar “title-extending” activities with this work. After the ballet skirt/electric light conversation, we’ve asked “What else do you see?” Ai Wee asks the students to brainstorm a list, creating the world’s longest painting title! The point is to keep looking and digging at the same image in order to really see every part of it and find new interpretations.
Similarly, I’ve given students the challenge of creating new titles for other works in the gallery. In pairs, students find a work that they are drawn to and create an alternate title based on what they see in the painting or their response to it. When we reconvene as a group, students read their new titles and the other students guess which painting it was based on. This allows students to see other works in a new way.
Both these activities allow students to engage in close looking, either at one work or at many. By using a projector or print-outs of the images, you might want to try it in your classroom too. Find out more about Ballet Skirt or Electric Light and see a full sized version. Find additional images by Georgia O’Keeffe here.
By Liz Gillroy, Assistant to School Programs