My 6th and 7th grade history classes recently completed a project that involved identifying and interpreting Pacific Northwest Coastal Native art forms and symbolism.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and in doing so was blessed with being exposed to a rich Native American culture, especially in terms of their powerful art images. Because I have always been intrigued by this unique type of art, I thought I would have my junior high students learn about the Pacific Northwest Native style, the specific symbolism that is a part of their imagery, and how that is a part of their larger worldview as a culture.
We first discussed and contrasted the pantheistic worldviews of the PNW tribes to that of a Christian biblical worldview, and looked to scripture to see where their beliefs were in contrast to biblical truth. Students then researched original PNW designs – identifying and using the appropriate colors used by the tribes. The final product becomes one that has redemptive value. In that, we are not only staying true to the beautiful style of the PNW tribes, but illustrating aspects of the one true God and his creation.
In a sense, there are two ways to approach artwork from a culture and peoples of a very different religious view than our own. We can look at artwork with a seasoning of “common grace”. Theologian Louis Berkhof describes common grace as, “…common because its benefits are experienced by, or intended for, the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is grace because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God.” Or, the artwork could be looked at through a biblical view; one that serves as a filter – showing what is praiseworthy and what might go against God and His creative order.
On its own, there is meaning and message that can be learned from looking at artwork; whether from within our own culture, or from different cultures like that of the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest. But it is my task as an educator to facilitate questions and discussion with my students when looking at art, and encourage them to respond according to a Christian perspective. No matter if I am looking at or talking about any type of art, I try to ask myself or pose to my students the following questions in some manner:
Does it relate to or bring out some aspect of our faith?
Does it give us an opportunity to discern?
Does it help us see the world and God’s people in unique or new ways?
Does it convey feelings of anger, doubt, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, or God’s grace?
Does it encourage and positively affect our hearts and minds?
Does it give opportunity to share the joy of knowing Christ?
As an educator and artist, I am excited to bring my students into a forum where we can view, discuss, create, and appreciate art – looking at its redemptive value as well as how it speaks to us as Christians. At Calvin Christian, we are helping our students look at the world through the “lenses” of scripture. It is truly an exciting venture.
By the way, the student artwork created was great! They were very thoughtful in their research, approach, and overall design. Soli Deo Gloria!
Ron Van Der Pol is Calvin Christian School’s Art Instructor for grades 7-12 and teaches History for grades 6-7.