What is the American Dream? Is the American Dream attainable? Why do people dream of coming to America? How do people view America from the outside? These are interesting and important questions for American students to ponder in our current political climate, and it helps them understand their place in the world a little better.
We recently visited the Mexico exhibit (AMAZING exhibit!!) at the Dallas Museum of Art and found a few artworks that made these questions attainable and easy-to-discuss with students through art.
This artwork is The Northern Border of Mexico by Ángel Zárraga.
My daughters (ages 5 and 8) gravitated to this artwork immediately. It is a great artwork to discuss with students, especially upper elementary students. With my almost-third grader, I asked her what was going on, and she got a lot of information from this painting just through looking. Even now as I write this, my 5-year-old saw the artwork on the screen, recognized it from the museum, and wanted to talk about it even more!
Our interpretation was the woman was in Mexico, and she is looking into the United States and dreaming of going there but cannot. We knew she was from Mexico from the cactus, the adobe wall, her dress, and her hair. The wall separates the two worlds, and the contrast is striking. My daughter and I discussed the American Dream a little bit in front of the work.
The Mexican side of the artwork is grounded with natural colors while the city in the distance appears to float on clouds with light rays coming from it. It’s almost like Oz in the distance.
Here are some discussion questions you can use with your students with this painting. These artworks would go great with the worksheets from my free printable worksheet bundle including the compare/contrast worksheet, the see/think/wonder reflections, and the write a letter activity! Click here to download!
- What do you notice? What do you see that makes you say that?
- What is the green thing on the side (if they haven’t figured out it was a cactus yet)?
- Where is the woman? How do you know? Where have you seen adobe walls like that?
- What is in the distance?
- Does the woman want to go there? What do you see that makes you say that?
- Imagine you are the women in this painting. Stand like her. What would you be thinking and feeling at this moment?
- What is keeping the woman from going there?
- What do you think the woman will find when she gets there?
- Why did the artist include the half-circle shapes at the bottom of the city?
For your students studying the elements and principles of art, this is a great artwork to discuss composition—especially balance through line, light, and color.
The next artwork is not part of the Mexico exhibit but it is in the Dallas Museum of Art’s permanent collection. It’s one of my favorites there–Rufino Tamayo’s El Hombre (The Man), 1953. My 6th graders enjoyed discussing this artwork on our recent field trip to the DMA.
This artwork is less about the American Dream and more about human greatness and someone torn between the past and the present.
Take a look at this painting.
A man reaches out to the constellations and is almost being sucked into the sky with the hazy black paint wisping into the sky, but his large feet and legs are seemingly planted/rooted into the ground. (Yes, I totally made up that word wisping just now. That needs to be an art word.)
I’ve always enjoyed this painting because people reaching for their dreams and following their passions is something I am particularly passionate about myself, but I learned some new insights about this artwork from our docent last month. While this painting wasn’t meant by the artist to be about the American Dream, he did include many elements from both Mexico and America in the artwork. The large white crescent in the sky is not only a moon but the beak of an eagle. My students were THRILLED when she pointed this out.
The eagle not only is a symbol for America, but it is also on the Mexican flag. Tamayo was referencing a friendship between America and Mexico with his choices as well as his friendship with Stanley Marcus who commissioned this artwork for the DMA.
As I always say, it’s important to let students find this information for themselves, so I wouldn’t lead them too much with the meaning. Open it up and let them figure it out for themselves.
Here are some discussion questions you can ask with this artwork.
- What do you notice? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find?
- Who is this person? What is he doing? What does he want?
- Imagine you are this person. Stand like him. What would you be thinking and feeling at this moment?
- What colors did the artist choose, and how does they contribute to the meaning?
- Point out the eagle. What was the artist trying to say by including the eagle?
These artworks would also work well as a compare/contrast activity. Put them side by side and have students compare the meaning and message in each one. Do the people in each painting have similar wants and dreams or are they different?
These artworks would go great with the worksheets from my free printable worksheet bundle including the compare/contrast worksheet, the see/think/wonder reflections, and the write a letter activity! Click here to download!
This post is not affiliated with the DMA at all, but if you have a chance to check out the Mexico exhibit between now and July 16, I HIGHLY recommend it! What a fabulous experience.
Starting on July 2, I’ll be doing a free e-mail series Art Around the World in 21 Days! Each day from July 2 to 22, you will receive an artwork of the day from a new country or culture. I’m looking forward to sharing a bunch of new art with you! Click here to sign up for the e-mail series!
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