During her presentation at “The Civil Rights Movement in Northeast Georgia” professional development workshop, Marie Cochran introduced the participants to ways to incorporate visual images into their classrooms. She had them read Dianna Minor’s NCTE post, “Visual Literacy is Critical for 21st Century Learners,” and had them look at two images using the OPTIC strategy. Today, I want to look at one of the images that Cochran shared with participants and walk through the OPTIC strategy, detailing some how I would include the image and the strategy in one of my courses, specifically in my Lillian E. Smith Studies course. I had not seen this painting before Marie shared it with me as we prepared for the professional development program, so I was unfamiliar with it and the context in which it was created.
For overview, students must provide a general, probably one to two sentence statement, describing the image. My description of the image above would be, “The painting shows the interiority and the psychological damage an individual, the young girl in this case, endures when attacked from multiple angles and perspectives.” I say this because we see the central image of what appears to a young, Black girl holding school books and pierced with arrows as grotesque caricatures surround her from every angle on the frame.
For parts, students look at the image and determine the important parts, thinking about and inferring how those parts contribute to the whole. Here, I again go to the young girl at the center of the image. Her eyes look downward towards the bottom right of the panel, averting her gaze from the figures on the left, and specifically the one at the top left that leers down at her. However, her eyes look down towards a small, red figure that looks like Red Skull from the Captain America comics, at the bottom right who is strolling up to her, smiling sensually at her as he leans back with hands on his buttock.
Along with all of this, there are four other figures in the image that gaze and leer at the young girl. The blue one in the middle left appears to be leering while also running away. The red and green ones on the top right appear to be trying to scare her, while the green one does a leg kick, almost as if dancing. The purple one on the bottom left, wearing a dress, laughs hysterically and appears to be falling backwards.
The girl wears white, but she also has arrows sticking out of her, mirroring famous images of St. Sebastian, a Christian martyr who was shot through arrows for converting fellow Roman soldiers to Christianity. Taken in connection with the figures lurking around her, we infer that the girl represents a martyr or sacrificial figure, innocent and being preyed upon by the forces who seek to attack her. All of this together continues with the observation that I present above that the image depicts the interiority of a young girl, placed on a pedestal and becoming a martyr for something.
To this point, students will not look at the title. After they initially observe the image and then look at the important parts, they will encounter the title of the work. The piece above is Jacob Lawrence’s The Ordeal of Alice (1963). The title provides students with two important pieces of information. First, the word “ordeal,” tells them that Alice endures, as the definition for “ordeal” reads in the Oxford English Dictionary, “a painful, trying, or unhappy experience, esp. a protracted one.” Here, students see that the title relates to the overall feel of the image, one of pain, fear, and unhappiness. As well, the addition of “a protracted one” at the end of the definition informs them that the experience is not a short one. It will affect Alice well into the future, haunting and impacting her as she grows older.
The second part of the title that students see is “Alice,” and they may think about Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where Alice falls down a rabbit hole into a world of anthropomorphic animals and everyday items. Alice travels to a fantastical world with these creatures and encounters riddles, trials, and more on her journey. The figures that leer and stare at Alice in the painting take on these fantastical kind of anthropomorphic features of characters such as the Cheshire Cat or the Queen of Hearts. The surrealist nature of the painting, as well, plays into this connection, causing viewers to possibly think about the 1951 Disney film adaptation of the novel. Ultimately, the title reinforces what students will most likely take from the first two points of inspection: namely that the girl is enduring psychological and physical trauma.
When students think about “interrelationships,” they think about “how the elements” of the image “work together to create mood or meaning.” Here, they think about not just the parts of the image but about the color and style as well. For me, the use of red and what appears (I have a hard time distinguishing some colors) green on the right create a feeling of dread and menace while the blue, purple, and green on the right are a little more subdued and sort of calming. Notice that the face of the figure in the top left, the one hovering above Alice with insidious hands, is red. Along with these colors, we also see Alice dressed in white, with black shoes. This centers her as innocent, causing students to view her as someone untainted. However, the blood from the piercing arrows shows that she has been attacked. The color of the flowers on the ground correspond to the other colors, and they depict a sort of birth, even though the rest of the image invokes fear.
The style of the painting adds to all of this as well because surrealism relies on the use of illogical images and scenes that provide insight into the unconscious psyche. The distorted, elongated, and grotesque features of the figures peering at Alice create this feeling, causing students to think about the affects of these attacks on Alice. Her gaze, and the ways that she cradles the school books, shows her in a protective manner, thinking about how she will overcome the onslaught that the figures bring against her.
For the conclusion, students provide a brief statement where they lay out the overall meaning. At this point, I would tell them that Lawrence painted The Ordeal of Alice two years after Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. This information lead me to summarize the piece as follows: “The Ordeal of Alice shows the psychological trauma that Bridges and other young African American students endured, and continue to endure, when they integrated schools in the 1950s and 1960s. It shows the interiority of individuals such as Bridges, and it points to the continued impact of this moment on the lives of individuals.”
Today, I focuses on The Ordeal of Alice. In the next post, I will look at another image related to Ruby Bridges’ integration of William Frantz Elementary School and discuss how I would use these images in my Lillian Smith Studies Course. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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