Ms Beth Ashton looks at ways we can connect the Arts in Primary Education, arguing that the discipline of ekphrasis (connecting visual arts with poetic form) helps learners to develop creative expression.
The power of the visual image in relation to development has been extensively studied. Many of the skills of analysis used in decoding an image are also present in the analysis of text. Images are the way we first experience the world, and inspire immediate and emotive responses from students. I chose to explore the use of paintings as a stimulus for poetry writing with Year 6 students. This discipline of using visual arts in dialogue with poetic form is a discipline known as ekphrasis, and has been used by celebrated writers throughout literary history.
It is significant to note that simply using an image as a stimulus for poetry would not meet the criteria necessary to achieve true ekphrastic work – the intentionality of the artist is essential in order to create a dialogue between poet (in this case Year 6 girls), painting, and artist.
Research shows that when using a painting as the stimulus for poetry writing, children invent a context, story and message around the image. They are thus inventing their own story and interpretation of the artwork, and communicating truths about themselves in the process, through the meanings they project onto the painting. The poet is not simply writing a descriptive piece about the subject (i.e. the painting), they are using the subject as a way to communicate truths about themselves.
This process of exploring context and creating a message through creative expression is one which can, if we are not vigilant, fall by the wayside in the classroom. The National Curriculum focuses on the structural elements of writing, such as grammar and syntax. Whilst these are of course essential, they are not, and should never be, the driving reason behind the study of English Literature. Reading objectives and national assessments currently require students to interpret a text in order to locate an absolute, definitive meaning, which is not open to subjective interpretation. Anyone who has any experience of literature, from Shakespeare to Horrid Henry, knows that meaning is fluid and highly dependent on the context of the reader; this is what makes reading one of life’s great pleasures.
By engaging children in writing based on visual images and artwork, we are encouraging them to embrace the idea of ambiguity, and the possibility that there are many different ways to interpret artwork, whatever the medium. We are also teaching our students that the meanings we make are dependent on our context, and may change over time. These skills are essential, as pupils learn to grapple with difference and tolerate alternative perspectives to their own world view.
In order to explore Ekphrastic poetry, pupils studied Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, analysing the image as a whole class and trying to predict what could be happening within the image. They then read Tennyson’s poem of the same name. The second intervention followed the same structure, with a different painting. This time, the pupils analysed George and the Dragon painted by Paolo Uccello in the 14th Century. Pupils then read an abridged version of the poem Not My Best Side, by U.A. Fanthorpe, written in the 1970s. Through writing in role as the characters in the painting, Fanthorpe produced a commentary on established gender roles. The inner personalities of the characters are revealed in first person, showing a subversion of the roles played in the painting.
Following analysis of the second painting and poem pair, the pupils were invited to choose a piece of artwork to bring to class, from which they would produce their own poem. Poems ranged from first-person diary entries, written in role as Ophelia, to reflections on Monet’s Waterlilies, writing in role as a lonely bridge, stretching over a pond.
Ekphrastic poetry is a useful and engaging way in which to encourage children to take ownership over different art forms and begin to see the links across the curriculum. It is also an impactful and insightful way to create a classroom which values ambiguity and open-ended meaning making.
 See http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/uccello.html for the full poem