Fine Art makes you think, raises emotions, and allows a visual story without words. Artists’ work records their cultures, documents history, reflects their emotions, and can tell a very powerful story without writing a single word. Those powerful stories have been successful in teaching empathy, tolerance, and acceptance. Artist Martin Puryear created a sculpture to visually tell the story, without words. “A Ladder for Booker T Washington” is one of many visual stories, told without words. Every piece of Martin Puryear’s sculpture is a metaphor that visually describes the struggles of an African American man, born into slavery, freed through the emancipation proclamation law in 1863, and worked hard to achieve his accomplishments and successes. Master Artist Martin Puryear’s sculpture “A Ladder for Booker T. Washington” is a great way to introduce a Black artist’s contribution to Black History Month for 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. My art lesson video is designed in a format for discussion rather than an art project. To fully understand why Artist Martin Puyear created and built “A Ladder for Booker T. Washington, your students will need a little history. No worries, I include the history in the art lesson video. The information I have listed below is reference for classroom teachers. Booker Taliaferro Washington was born on April 5th,1856, and lived until November 14th, 1915. He was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents of the United States. Against all odds, Booker T. Washington was best known for establishing the Tuskegee Institute, the very first Black College in the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African-American community. Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.” —Booker T. Washington Sculptor Artist Martin Puyear was born in 1941 in Washington, D.C., and is currently living in Chicago. Martin Puryear began exploring traditional craft methods in his youth, making tools, boats, musical instruments, and furniture. He attended art school and holds an MFA (Master of Fine Arts Degree) which he received from Yale University. Puryear is known for creating large-scale sculptures out of wood. In Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear uses perspective to create an illusion to make the ladder look farther away than it actually is. The thirty-six-foot ladder is on permanent display at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The ladder, curves and gets narrower at the top. While the bottom rungs are similar in size to conventional ladders, they narrow to 1 1/4 inches at the top. The ladder is lifted several inches off the ground, which gives it the feeling of being suspended in the air. Martin Puryear used a Golden Ash sapling from his backyard to carve the ladder. Video length is 47 seconds. https://youtu.be/Pwft77sKhqE ART21 Interview with Martin Puryear 2003: ART21: Is there something about this piece that amuses you? PURYEAR: Well, I enjoyed doing it. And I certainly enjoy the way it looks at the Modern in Fort Worth. It’s interesting to me—and this is new for me—but the work does contain a history lesson. Because people who see it want to know what it’s about. It’s a curiosity when they see a title as specific as that. It’s been written about a couple of times. In fact, there’s a wall label in the museum that talks about Booker T. Washington more than it talks about the work, which I find interesting. I think there’s a lot going on in the work as a sculpture. But I think the urgency of the historical information about Booker T. Washington is in terms of what the museum thinks the public would want to know or should know about it and, I think, in this case, eclipses what’s going on within the object. I found that kind of interesting. “A Ladder for Booker T Washington” opens up thought and conversation and can offer an opportunity to understand what life was like for an African American man back in the day. Before opening up a conversation with your students, let them know, there are no wrong answers in art. However the art piece makes them feel, or whatever ideas they have about the art, it’s the right answer. Artists make artwork with their ideas but can’t control the ideas and thoughts of the viewer. Let them have their thoughts. Ask your students:
- What’s going on in this piece of art?
- What does the ladder represent?
- Can you imagine what it would be like trying to climb the ladder?
- Would it be easy to take your first step onto the ladder be like?
- Why is the ladder suspended 3 feet off the ground?
Your students answer to these questions might surprise you. Looking and learning about artists, professional or non-professional, will inspire your students, create imagination, develop confidence and will grow their brain. Martin Puyear’s “Ladder for Booker T Washington” moves me. I hope it will move you and your students as well. Enjoy, Sami Perry