Aesthetics: Taking Time to Notice

Recently I visited the Denver Art Museum and had an experience that has stayed with me. It was the Red, White and Bold: Masterworks of Navajo Design, 1840-1870 exhibition of Navajo chief blankets. An arresting aesthetic experience. What made it that way- why does it stay with me in a way that brings me back time and time again to memories of the exhibit?

navajo rug2As I reflect on the exhibit now, several months after seeing it, here are a few things that made it so arresting:

The way the blankets were displayed drew me in.   Purple shadows created irregular outlines of the sides of the work on the walls. This was unusual, the play between the objects and shadows. The architectural space that housed the rugs with cathedral like ceilings and blankets hung all the way to the top, pulling your eyes upward, soft light and purple backlighting created a reverence of space. The beauty of the weavings themselves left me with a sense of awe- the simple bold patterns and the incredible craftsmanship to create such perfect symmetry.  And finally, the time and culture they evoked- the stories. This show put me in a place of deep imagining and connection. Perhaps it is my background as a weaver and spinner- the reminder of what it is like to work with wool and color and how difficult it is to achieve such perfect symmetry. Then there were the connections I made to a time and place long gone. While Navajo rugs have been made since the late 1600’s the mid 19th century is considered the apex of Navajo weaving production. Armed with bold designs and a limited palette, the weavers produced astounding work.

How do we provide kids with experiences that help them understand what it looks and feels like to respond in an aesthetic way? How can we provide aesthetic experiences that produce a sense of wonder and allow time for the simple act of noticing?

One way is to provide opportunities for kids to look closely at the world, to have the time and space to explore, play and create.

While we often think of aesthetic experiences linked to the visual arts similar to mine with the Navajo blankets, we can also have aesthetic experiences with language using poetry for example.

One way I have done this with K-12 students and adults is:

Choose a great poem from the best poets we have like Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Garcia Lorca, or Maya Angelou (there are many to choose from).

Give each student a copy of the poem.

Read the poem aloud to the class and ask them to sit back and enjoy the imagery it evokes; the sounds of the words rolling off the tongue. Just listen.

Read it a second time – invite listeners to listen for interesting words or phrases, the “newest” part of the poem. Words that give them goose bumps or cause a sharp intake of breath. Invite students to  highlight these word or phrases and say them back to themselves. Taking the time to listen to the poem several times without the burden of analysis allows room for reveling in and enjoying the sound of the language, and images evoked.

Have students reflect in writing on the words or phrases they chose and the poem itself.

  • What did it make them think about?  What connections did they have?
  • What did they notice about the poem and the language they liked?
  • How did the sound of the language affect them as readers?
  • How did the poem look on the page?

navajo rug1Invite students to turn to a partner and share the parts of the poem they chose and their reflections.

Next, provide students with lots of different poems to choose from and invite them to engage in the activity again. This time they can work with a partner or small group. Be sure to have them read the poem out loud to hear the sound of the language.

Just as visual artists invite us to have aesthetic experiences through the emotions they evoke, the stories they tell, and the questions they raise in our minds, so do writers with their use of language. As students learn to explore the work of others aesthetically, they will develop a heightened sense of the purpose of all fine arts—a communication between the artist and those who experience their work.

For more visit our Artful Reading page.

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