Modern Day Love Letters

Communicating through tokens of affection, artist-to-artist, in a cross-grade-level collaboration.

This unit introduces students to the symbolic token of affection, the “Love Letter.” Students create original artworks as a form of updated tokens, using the concept of the love letter and contemporary artists as inspiration. Students use various modern media and materials. They use the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) as a resource, and as an introduction to contemporary art and artists.

The hand has been removed from the intimacy of writing love letters. The age of technology had desensitized the act of showing affections to others by the creation of email, texting, and other digital ways of communicating. What are other ways to show affection and a connection to others that retain the personal intimacy of the token of a handwritten love letter?

The central activities of this unit were sessions of brainstorming discussions, a research assignment, a field trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the creation of art.

The learning objectives were to

  • Provide an introduction to contemporary art and artists, via a research assignment and a fieldtrip to the Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • Create original art inspired by the intimacy of the “love letter.”

Documentation + Assessment Suggestions

  1. First, students participated in small group discussions on the topics of love letters, tokens /symbols of affection.
  2. Second, there was a whole group share-out about small group topics.
  3. Third, students researched a contemporary artist online, and went on a field trip to the MCA.
  4. Fourth, I conducted one-on-one meetings with students about their artists. During the meetings, we discussed how they made their choice of contemporary artist, and what connections they can make to them, and how to create an original artwork inspired by those connections. Provide guidance, supplies and materials as needed.
  5. Fifth, independent studio time. Provide guidance, supplies, materials and one-on-one informal check–ins.
  6. Sixth, have students submit documentations and artwork. Documentation can be written, emailed, “selidio” (self video), and/or a verbal presentation. Artworks can vary from student to student.
  7. Seventh, have a whole group share-out.

Learning Activities

Class 1: Present, Discuss, Share, Plan, and Investigate
Present… Stephen Powers, Love Letters.
Discuss… in small groups, the meaning of a “love letter.”
Questions can include

  • What is a love letter?
  • How has time affected how we show affection to each other?
  • How is a handwritten love letter different than a typed texted or e-mail letter?
  • What does it mean to create a token of affection for another?
  • What are examples of other tokens of affections?
    Share… in the whole group about small group discussion topics.
    Plan… a field trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
    Investigate… contemporary artists via the computer for homework. Have students research 5 contemporary artists and write a brief bio and description of their works.

Class 2: Field Trip to the MCA
Highly Recommended… Reserve an artist-led tour of the museum.

Class 3: Share, Discuss, Draw and Document
Share… in the whole group about students’ experiences during the fieldtrip. Have each student recall a contemporary artist and artwork they saw during the trip.
Discuss… in the whole group, about contemporary art. What is contemporary art? Is there a difference between contemporary art and modern art?
Share… in small groups, students’ researched contemporary artists. Have students compile a list of shared contemporary artists to share to the whole class. Have small groups share their lists to the whole class.
Draw connections… to contemporary artists students that researched independently, and brainstorm on ideas using personal interest and talents to create an original token of affection, a modern love letter to them.
Ask guiding questions to students such as:

  • Why did you choose the contemporary artist that you researched?
  • Is there a particular piece of artwork by that artist that you can connect to?
  • Other than writing a letter, what are other ways you can express how you appreciate your contemporary artists?
    Photograph… and document students’ progress throughout the unit.

Class 4: Studio Time and Brainstorming
Brainstorm… as students write why they chose their contemporary artists and the connection they discovered or created between them. This connection will be the inspiration to create their artworks. Students will have independent studio time to brainstorm ideas to create their own token of affection. The teacher should meet with students independently during this time to provide guidance, supplies and materials.

Class 5: Studio Time
Provide time… for students to work independently and to document their progress. Once again, meet with each student to assess his or her progress and provide guidance, supplies, and materials.

Class 6: Share Out
Share out… in the whole class, students’ projects and documentation.

Materials + Supplies

Materials and supplies are varied to students’ projects.

MCA Connections

The integration of the MCA to this unit is a very important jumping-off point to start the discussion of contemporary art and artists. The MCA and its artist-led tours provide a unique and valuable introduction and resource to contemporary art and artists.

Gerald R. Gomez

Robert Healy Elementary School

Gerald R. Gomez believes that the ability to create is not something that can be learned or taught; rather it is an innate desire of expression that everyone possesses. Only a few people, however, obtain the passion to consistently access that ability, and he counts himself blessed to be one of those people. He has a passion to create art so that he can express his ideas and visions to the world. He considers himself a multimedia artist and enjoys the challenge of fusing a variety of materials, media, and art forms in the process of creating art. His motto is: “Why limit yourself to just a few things when life is too short and there are so many choices out there? You are only limited by your own imagination.”

Gerald reflects on his creative process

I initially anticipated working with 2nd graders and thought that I would basically concentrate on introducing them to contemporary art and artists. It was going to be a straightforward lesson. I struggled with finding another concept other than the introduction and repurposing of materials. It wasn't until Rachel Harper sang a love song to us at the Teacher Institute. This was my "aha moment." I know I can't sing, but I have other talents. How can I sing to my students? I can teach them to use their own talents to "sing" their song. I researched contemporary love tokens, and discovered Stephen Powers’ love letters. He became the hook, the introduction to the lesson. His love letter series combined modern technology and contemporary art concepts.

Due to my class schedule, I chose to teach this lesson to an 8th- and 6th-grade gifted class. I teach them back-to-back on Fridays. This made it easier for both classes to go on the field trip to the MCA, without disrupting other classes. I introduced the lesson in whole group, and then had students discuss the topic of contemporary art and the concepts of writing a love letter in small groups. I had the students research contemporary artists, in class and for homework, before they went on the field trip. The next class period I had the students share their research in small groups, and then to the class. We also had a discussion on what constitutes contemporary art. The students then chose artists they had researched to find connections with, so they could create their token love letters. When the students in 6th grade shared their artists, I noticed that some of the students who had siblings in 8th grade had researched the same artists. Therefore, I had them collaborate with each other on their artists. This became an "aha moment": the lesson then became a cross-grade-level collaboration.

I chose to spend a year in the MCA because I wanted to challenge myself and to continue to expand my experience and curriculum with contemporary art. My experience in the institute contributed to my evolving curriculum by having me think outside of my comfort zone. Personally I feel that contemporary art is more relevant to my style of teaching and pedagogy. I believe that the concept, process, and product are all important to the artists. I think the overlaps between contemporary teaching and contemporary art are very important to teaching and the learning process. Modern education and Common Core Standards are based on higher-order thinking skills and conceptual thinking, and that is what contemporary art is all about. I believe that teaching is an art form, because both teaching and art are ways of introducing, informing, exposing, challenging, and educating others.

I am limited in my own education, talents, skills, and experiences as a visual arts teacher and artist. My students were able to create art using their own talents, skills, and experiences. I was pleasantly surprised at how diversely talented my students are, and at how much I was able to learn from them.