Tom Collins | February 2018

Ekphrasis: STEAM Inspired by Art

Ekphrastic work is art that is inspired by another piece of art.  I was first introduced to this concept when discussing project based learning in second language acquisition with a colleague.  They told me of their work with Spanish poetry, for which they found inspiration in Goya’s Third of May. They had used the poem to assess their student’s understanding of descriptive Spanish language. In the task set the students examined the vocabulary used. Then, as an assessment of their language understanding, they drew the image that the writing conjured up in their minds. The original piece was then revealed and the similarities between the student’s interpretations and Goya’s work were striking.

Art Inspired by Art

This conversation brought to mind a time when I first taught through an ekphrastic model during my first year teaching elementary science in Chicago. Our wonderful art teacher, Justine Domine, presented a project to me and my colleagues. We were to diverge from the standard curriculum for a few days. During this time, a single piece of art would be used as a stimulus for all our work.

Art classes that had taken place that half of the semester had been based on The Herring Net (by Winslow Homer). We teachers had the opportunity to explore the piece with the pupils in our classes for two days.


The Herring Net, 1885 by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of

My 4th graders were learning about states of matter at the time and we had just talked about the properties of gas: no fixed shape, energetically spreads out to completely fill a space, and can be compressed. We used the herring trapped in the net  in Winslow’s work as a stimulus. Our conversation went from the adaptations for life in the water to how fish were able to maintain their buoyancy. It brought to mind the Cartesian Diver model and how this shows buoyancy through gas compression. This is when you trap a bubble of air in a piece of straw and place it in a bottle of water. Then, through squeezing the sealed bottle to exert pressure on the gas in the straw, the ‘diver’ will ascend and descend in the water column as the gas’ density changes.

Integration Inspired by Art

This project enabled the pupils to demonstrate their knowledge of the properties of the gaseous state (science). They were able to construct a model to demonstrate their understanding, selecting their materials and components carefully (Design and Technology). And all the while, they were learning about great artists, architects, and designers in history (Art). The art integration in this case was a schoolwide approach, interpreting the work of Winslow Homer.

Taking one painting inspired literacy, math, dance, music, science, foreign language, drama, humanities, and social studies, and the school was abuzz for two days with children across different grades talking about the way they were approaching the piece of art. All it took was a bit of creativity in how a piece can link to learning goals. That, and the courage to let the children take the helm!  Suffice it to say, Mrs. Domine has made this project an annual one. As a result, the children eagerly look forward to learning about a new work of art each year.

So I challenge you, take a walk to your local gallery. Choose a piece from the permanent collection so the children can visit the piece. Bring a print back to school and use it for a couple of hours/days/weeks of ekphrasis.

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