Madison Cityscapes

In the Art Studio, the Blue Room children used light, shadow, and projection as a way to explore our city of Madison, Wisconsin. My intention behind this work was to challenge the children to think differently about the shapes and details they noticed in the landscape. I wondered if by tracing the positive and negative line work of the projected image it would cause them to think differently when they built their own versions of Madison.

What would they focus on?
What would they notice?5The children traced lines of a cityscape collaboratively, and also used a projector to trace buildings they built themselves.

As the children worked on tracing the city lines, they began to get a sense of the buildings in a more complex and different way. While one student was working on the line drawing, he noticed the perspective of the landscape and made the astute comment, “Wow! I didn’t know there were so many buildings together in Madison. If I was in an airplane, they look like so many buildings…like squeezed all together, not spread apart with roads. I’ve been to a bunch around the Capitol, but not this many.”

Though it may seem easy, the tracings of the lines and buildings from a projection is a bit tricky. The children need to have the motor control to draw the lines, they need to negotiate their space, and  problem-solve how to draw while not obscuring the image

Two children delighted to “wear Madison”.

IMG_1298In building their own cityscapes, the children began to think about the layers and levels of a city.

This looks like a real building in the shadow!6

That’s not going to be stable enough.
Student: I don’t think that other jar will be stable enough either. We could try this thing… As you can see…it looks JUST like the Capitol building.

The children watched each other work, and offered up suggestions to each other about how to make their structures more stable. When one observed another having trouble keeping his work from tilting, he said, “I’ll hold it steady and you add the top on.”

As they built together, they repeatedly referenced the projected landscape. The students agreed that they wanted the buildings to be very tall and for one of the structures to be the Capitol building. They also expressed the desire to have the buildings close together and staggered somewhat.

3One child talked about the “city we’re making together” and noticed that both the line drawing of Madison and the tracings of their built landscapes look like a busy city. Another mentioned that looking at their collective work makes her feel “excited like I’m with my friends going zipping through the streets on the city bus…in Madison or France”.
Indeed, their work is beautiful. It conveys energy and the feel or pulse of “city”. Behind their work, their conversation, again, touches upon their emotions…their connections to and relationships with, each other and with Madison.


The following week, the children added details from references of Madison and from their imaginations, and began to add color to their city panels. Their work included things that made the children feel happy…rainbows, flowers, (many) suns, smiling people, etc. – all elements that conveyed their sense of well-being and their connection to Madison.

IMG_3443 (1)“Madison has lots of people. They’re in the buildings…maybe apartments or restaurants. So, I’m making some people looking out the windows.”

“I’m making this so careful by the buildings. Sometimes, you can see the sky in-between.” 

“I love those triangle windows. I want to go inside that building and look outside. Would everything look that shape?”

The children worked very carefully on these pieces, over the course of a couple weeks. In working carefully, the children exhibit a lot of motor control in working within lines and around the complex shapes. They seem to have a certain reverence for their work and specifically their work with Madison as the subject matter. I have noticed that the children are very focused on this and of honoring the work of their classmates in these collaborative pieces. IMG_3494

To supplement their city scapes, the Blue Room children were introduced to the work of Wesley Willis. Wesley Lawrence Willis(May 31, 1963–August 21, 2003) was an American visual artist and singer-songwriter from Chicago. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989, Willis produced hundreds of intricate, unusual, colored ink-pen drawings typically encompassing detailed Chicago streetscapes, including buildings, vehicles, trees, and landmarks. During his lifetime, he frequently gave his drawings away to friends or sold them for small amounts (typically $10 or $20) in Chicago parks. However, after his death, Willis began to receive recognition in the art community for his large body of visual art.

We examined his art, and we wondered about and discussed his process. The children marveled at the intricacies of what they saw and began to draw parallels to their own work. One student said she could tell that he liked his city, Chicago, as much as they liked their city, Madison. Another saw that he would add cars and trucks to his work like they chose to do, and they talked about how both Willis’s work and their own, showed buildings in layers (buildings in back of each other).

“This Wesley guy made his buildings colorful just like ours.” IMG_3715

One student was fascinated by Willis’s ability to make such straight lines without the use of a ruler. When he was told that Willis did that by using one of his pens as a straight edge, he decided to give it a try.

“I bet if I keep practicing, I could get pretty good at this. I think that’s what he did.”

As they worked, the children shared their past experiences in Madison with each other.

There’s a lot to do in Madison…I like that. There’s lots of places to go and see. Other places in Wisconsin aren’t like that.

Student: At the Capitol, there are shops like all kinds of shops. Like…flowers and cookies kind of shops. I like to go there and get chocolate croissants. Do you ever go to the shops?
Student: No, not really. I like to do different activities and there are many here. I like to go to the Children’s Museum. That’s near the Capitol, too.

There’s some restaurants that have some really good food. My favorite is Village Green. It’s in Middleton and that’s okay ‘cause Middleton might be best friends with Madison.

IMG_3747Their experiences in Madison with their families and with their teachers and school have helped to form these feelings and opinions, which in turn shaped their desire to create a Madison that is beautiful. Examining their work, many of the children expressed that they knew their pieces did not look exactly like the city, but rather, was how they felt their city is. Their work shows their connection to the place in which they live – full of interesting things to look at, and beautiful.

One day, while working, the conversation focused on their knowledge of the history of Madison’s Capitol. (I learned a lot from them!)

Student: Do you know there were two Capitols? The other one was on Main St. That one got on fire.
Student: That was a long time ago. It burned all up.
Student: Yeah, it was a long time ago and all the fire trucks came and they couldn’t put out the fire ‘cause it only freezed.
Student: The water froze before it even put out the fire. It came out the hose and froze. The fire kept burning.
Student: There was water in the bottom of the Capitol and they could fix it. That was there all winter. People came and cut all the windows with saws so the sun would melt the ice.
Student: That woman on top of the Capitol…she has a tiny, shiny badger on top of her head. Did you know that?

IMG_3767To look closely at their work, is to discover many hidden gems. These also, touched upon their understandings and knowledge about the area they call home. This seemed to be true whether the child initially drew a particular thing or not. In other words, they all seemed to be in agreement about what was represented and what the drawn images meant.

IMG_4229In this work, I wanted the children to have the opportunity to visually explore contrasts, but with a common context, and one that was inanimate. Using light, shadow, and projection, I also wanted the children to be inspired by what they were seeing and drawing. Their resulting Capitol with the white line-work on the black board is breath-taking. It did inspire them, but it also opened up an avenue to dip into creating their imagined Madison. This beautiful imagined city taps into their knowledge and exemplifies their connection, their feelings, to their home, to friends and other people they love.IMG_4253IMG_4250IMG_4252IMG_4251

Reflection by Kelly Blondin, Art Specialist

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