Children will explore the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of grass and draw on this information to more carefully examine American Grasslands. They will have fun using their imaginations and previous experiences to think about what types of animals live in the different grasses painted.
Intended Age GroupEarly childhood (ages 3-5)
Length of LessonOne 30 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- state at least one thing they see, feel, smell, and hear when outside in the grass;
- state at least one similarity and one difference between the grass outside and the grasses portrayed in the paintings; and
- use their imaginations and logic to describe what kinds of animals might live in different grasses in the paintings.
- Warm-up: Place five objects on a table where children can examine them for a few minutes. Tell them that you are going to remove the objects and that they need to be able to tell you as many details about the objects as they can once you do. Write on the board what they remember to give them a visual idea of how much they attended to.
- Show the children the pictures of American Grasslands. What do they see? Help them pay attention to little details.
- If there is grass near the school (or weeds, any plants/grasses), take a trip outdoors. Touch, smell, lie down on, and look very closely at the grass. Ask them to describe the grass. Is it scratchy; smooth; pointy; soft? What color is it? Does it make any sounds?
- Come back into the classroom. Compare the grass from outside with the American Grasslands paintings. Pay attention to the same sensory elements you talked about outside.
- If you have grass skirts, allow the children to take turns wearing them and moving around. Help them attend to the sounds, motion, and tactile sensations of the skirt. You can do the lesson without this section; it’s simply a nice way to incorporate movement, sound, and touch. You could also have a cape for the children to touch and swirl around. Ask them to tell you about differences between the grasses they touched and the fabric of the cape.
- Talk about who lives in grass (ladybugs, rabbits, cows, beetles, birds, etc.). Imagine which picture or pictures each animal might live in and why. Ask which grass they would live in if they were an animal or bug and why.
- Access to an outdoor area with some form of grasses or plants
- One or more grass skirts or capes
- About the Art section on American Grasslands: Prairie, Pasture, Crop, and Lawn
- One color copy of the paintings for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Karen Kitchel was born in 1957 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and now resides in Los Angeles, California. She has lived and painted in the western United States for over twenty years. She remembers, as a child in Michigan, transplanting plants for her grandpa to earn money. “This was my experience not only with an intimate relationship to plants but also order.” In 1979, she moved to Los Angeles to attend Claremont Graduate University, where her commitment to hand-crafted painting and land-based imagery developed.
American Grasslands was Kitchel’s first series. She started painting it while living in Montana, where she found most of the grasses within two miles of her house. It took Kitchel almost four years to complete all of the 12 x 12 inch paintings. She explains that she doesn’t just fill a painting in from top to bottom, that “there are all kinds of decisions that I lost or they got away from me or they are the decisions I decided that I didn’t want to keep, so there are all sorts of paintings here that are buried.” Using oil paints and small brushes, Kitchel meticulously lays out many layers of paint with long, steady strokes. The intense focus and very small, controlled movements required for her work have given her arm pain in the past, and she now braces her elbow against a computer wrist pad to paint.
What Inspired It?
For American Grasslands, Kitchel spent a lot of time looking carefully at different types of grasses, taking photos, and collecting samples. “I use my camera as a sketchbook. I take rolls and rolls of really bad photographs… I want just a really rough image to remind me of light direction and some botanical specifics,” she says. She included many types of grasses to reference the way that people relate to the landscape today. Rather than staring at one awe-inspiring vista, we often experience the land in a more scattered way—plants in the backyard, weeds between the sidewalk cracks, what we see when we glance out a car window. “The concept of the virgin landscape is a myth that goes back to the white settlement of this country,” says Kitchel. “I wanted to show the landscape as an inhabited place, and that it wasn’t a bad thing, it was just a true condition.”
Viewers sometimes wonder at first if these images are photographs, but each square is painted by hand. Kitchel seeks a balance in her precision—she wants her plants to be identifiable and also for her “hand” to be visible in her work. She gets a “chuckle” when her work is confused for photos because she feels she’s “enhancing and creating the wildest sort of fiction with these paintings.” She says, “I do want to encourage and seduce a point of view that will get you on your hands and knees looking at something like cheatgrass. I mean, a lot of the things I’m showing in my paintings, people spend a lot of money trying to kill.”
The series American Grasslands: Prairie, Pasture, Crop, and Lawn consists of 112 paintings, of which the DAM owns twenty. A series of Japanese woodcuts, Hokusai’s 100 Views of Mount Fuji, gave Kitchel the idea to do 100, but she found so many good subjects that it became 112.
Kitchel chose the square shape of the paintings to signify square-foot units. Dividing the land into squares references the social and economic structure of the West, the way the land is measured and owned and the way it looks.
Close-ups are often ignored parts of western landscapes. But, while this appears at first to be a series of super close-ups, note that some squares are closer-up than others, and in some squares it’s really hard to tell distance.
Kitchel carefully composed each panel, and she works out a lot of her choices in composition on site using a camera with a lens specifically designed for close focusing. “I can walk through a field or along a path with my camera and just compose and select as I go. It helps me frame and select things and see things that you will absolutely walk past five feet above the ground.”