every month, i introduce my students to a famous artist. i write a kid-friendly biography for each of these Masters of the Month; i display lots and lots of their artwork; and, just for fun, i draw their portraits too. here are a few of those portraits plus some favorite tidbits from their lives:

Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn said this: "Art, as I saw it one day when I helped hang a National Academy show while I was a student there, was about cows. In those days, early in the twenties, there were many cow paintings. More than that, the cows always stood knee-deep in purple shadows. For the life of me I never learned to see purple where there was no purple and I detested cows. I was frankly distressed at the prospects for me as an artist.

"But there came a time when I stopped painting, stopped in order to evaluate all these doubts. If I couldn't see purple where there was no purple, I wouldn't use it. If I didn't like cows, I wouldn't paint them. What then was I to paint? Slowly I found that I must paint those things that were meaningful to me, that I could honestly paint in the shapes and colors I felt belonged to them. What shall I paint? Stories."

Ben Shahn became a Social Realist when he was in his twenties. He used his work to show how people lived in real life. During the Great Depression, the government sent Shahn across the country to take photographs. He was a very shy man but he built a special camera so he could take pictures without asking permission. It was a dream job for the artist. Years later, he used those photographs to make paintings. His work was on the cover of Time and was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Ben Shahn passed away in 1969. He is remembered as a man of uncompromising beliefs and an artist who spoke to the world.


Theodor Seuss Geisel

Theodor Geisel, better know as Dr. Seuss, was born more than 100 years ago this year. A doodler at heart, Ted often said - with a twinkle in his eye - that he never really learned to draw. He was a mischievous student but he worked hard for his school's humor magazine. He intended to become a teacher but a classmate, his future wife, said that he should become an artist instead. He took her advice. He became a cartoonist. He drew for magazines and advertisements. As World War II began, Ted drew political cartoons made movies for the U.S. Army.

A magazine article changed Ted's career. Why Johnny Can't Read told the world that children's books were boring. The writer called on artists like Geisel and Walt Disney to encourage children's imagination. So, Ted wrote a children's book using 220 vocabulary words. The Cat in the Hat made Dr. Suess the definitive children's book author/illustrator. He went on to write dozens of children's books. His stories were inspired by current events and his everyday life.

Ted and his wife lived and worked in an old observation tower in La Jolla, California. He worked in the tower for at least eight hours a day. He kept an amazing collection of "thinking caps." He wore the hats to relieve stress and help him feel creative. Soon after Dr. Seuss's death, Charles Cohen, a Seuss collector and museum curator, explained why Theodor Seuss Geisel was so important to the world. "He began the teaching of tolerance to generations of kids‹that 'a person is a person, no matter how small.'"


Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is a photographer best known for her conceptual self-portraits. She became interested in art at Buffalo State College, where she studied painting. She took up photography when painting started to frustrate her. "I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead," she explained. She spent the rest of her college career focused on photography. While still in college she met Robert Longo, and Charles Clough. Together they created Hallwalls, an arts center.

Sherman gained noteriety in her 69 photograph series, the Complete Untitled Film Stills. In it, Sherman photographed herself as actresses in B-movies and foreign films. Many of her photo-series, like the 1981 "Centerfolds," call attention to the stereotyping of women in art, films, television and magazines.

In 1995, Sherman was the recipient of one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships, popularly known as the "Genius Awards." This fellowship grants $500,000 over five years, no strings attached, to important scholars in a wide range of fields, to encourage their future creative work.


Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman began drawing his own comics at his kitchen table. When he learned that people actually earned a living drawing comics, his career path was clear. "I wanted to be one of the people that did that," he says. Spiegelman attended New York's High School of Art and Design. At that time, it was the only school where comics were taught in class. Spiegelman worked "to make comics that weren¹t like anything else." He used the medium to make political and social statements.

In 1977, Spiegelman published Breakdowns, a collection of his comics and other drawings. The book included a three-page gem called "Maus." The comic told his father's story of the Holocaust. "Wouldn't it be cool," Speigelman said about "Maus," "to have a comic book be so long [that] it needed a bookmark and demanded the same kind of attention a book might demand?" Spiegelman expanded on "Maus" in Raw Magazine. Raw was a revolutionary comic book that Spiegelman published with the help of his favorite cartoonists and his wife, Francoise Mouly. Maus became an instant literary classic. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Today, Art Spiegelman lives with his family in Manhattan. He creates thought-provoking and controversial illustrations for New Yorker magazine. He continues to make challenging political comics. He and his wife also publish hard cover comics for children.


John James Audubon

John James Audubon is a famous wildlife painter and naturalist. When he was a boy, he enjoyed wandering through the woods, collecting things from nature, and watching wildlife. He taught himself to draw through trial and error. His favorite subject was birds. When he was 35 years old, he took an eight month trip down the Mississippi River to find birds and paint them. He was the first person to start bird-banding studies in America. He tied lightweight strings to their legs so he could track their travels as they nested, left the area, and then returned to the nest.

Audubon's wife, Lucy, was able to support their family by teaching while Audubon pursued his dream of publishing a book of bird drawings. He was not successful in America, so he went to England to sell his work. While he was there, Audubon dressed as a woodsman and he let his hair grow long. He worked long hours and painted in public so people could watch him. Before he returned to the States, he sold subscriptions to his future artwork. Audubon created engravings for his clients. His drawings were printed from copper plates then watercolored by hand. The artwork was delivered to his subscribers in installments, five engravings at a time.

In 1826, Audubon created his masterwork. It was a set of life-size bird prints. The collection of prints was labeled a ³Double Elephant² portfolio. It was called Birds of America. The huge leather bound books originally sold for $1,070 but, in 2003, the complete leather bound set sold for over $8,000,000.

After Audubon's death, his wife started a school. One of her students, George Grinnell, founded the Audubon Society to protect birds and their habitats.

© 2009 rama hughes