“The Chambered Nautilus” and Aaron Douglas

Poetry Speaks Across Generations and Race

Over the weekend, I ventured to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri for an autumn afternoon outing. My husband, daughter, and I toured the museum, grabbed lunch at the museum’s Rozzelle Court, and then zoned in on the temporary exhibit, American Art Deco: Designing for the People.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., is a treasure you should explore soon.

Today, I would like to share with you something in particular that may find a place in your lessons on the Harlem Renaissance and/or the poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes, specifically “The Chambered Nautilus.” At the show, I discovered Building More Stately Mansions, a painting by the Kansas-born Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, which offered a new interpretation on Holmes’ poem when it was created in 1944.

Building More Stately Mansions demonstrates how poetry speaks across the generations and across races.

Art and poetry mix on canvas

Building More Stately Mansions (1944) by Aaron Douglas | Photo: M. Yung | Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.

Those concentric bands floating in the background represent the nautilus, a creature of growth, regeneration, and perfection. By underlaying the nautilus motif behind the bridges, towers, and architectural structures, Douglas creates a feeling of optimism, progress, appreciation, and acknowledgement.

The gallery label pictured below, which accompanied the above painting, caught my attention. I especially see value in discussing with students this line from the label: “The painting celebrates the contributions of people of African descent to the achievements of human civilization. Concentric bands of muted color suggest ongoing history and knowledge linking the builders of the pyramids, temples, and churches of the past to the constructors of the skyscrapers of the present.”

This gallery label accompanies the painting shown below by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas.

I was struck by the use of Holmes’ poem in the Modern Era painting. Douglas made a direct reference and applied his own perspective to Holmes’ verse. The painting demonstrates how language impacts artistic expression.

Poetry can speak across generations and races. Aaron Douglas’ painting, inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes’, is an example of that convergence. Photos: Creative Commons/Wikimedia

Connect 19th-c. poets to the Harlem Renaissance

This Aaron Douglas painting is just one way you can connect those “Dead Poets” to your 20th-century literature units.

Here are three more ideas:

  • Discuss Douglas’ inclusion of the nautilus symbol as an underlying symbol.
  • Relate the 19th-century poet’s ideas on individual growth to Douglas’ ideas on African-American influence.
  • Explore the ideas of “reverse” ekphrastic poetry. With Douglas’ work, we have a poem inspiring art instead of art inspiring poetry.
Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

Whenever I see ways to easily incorporate art into English Language Arts, I go for it. Using art in literature and language lessons engages more students and creates cross-curricular connections to provide more holistic learning.

How do you incorporate art into your lessons? Leave a comment on my Contact Page or in the comments below.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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