Category Archives: art

Decoder Ring Theatre – Your Home for Adventure, Golden Age of Radio-style

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Decoder Ring Theatre is a new obsession of mine.  I found it by accident–one of those websites a friend liked and thus caught my attention, but it took me a while to actually explore it.  I was thrilled with it when I finally did so.

Even when I was a kid, I had a fondness for old timey radio programs.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings and so watched old school westerns.  Maybe it was because I used to watch the old Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  Maybe it was my interest in the Green Hornet, which I followed in comic books.  Hard to say, really.  Hard to know what led to the other, too.

The programming available on Decoder Ring Theatre is the style of the old noir detective shows and superhero programs from the Golden Age of Radio.  I heart Black Jack Justice and his fellow-P.I. Trixie Dixon, girl detective.  I most enjoy those shows, but the real superhero is the Red Panda and his sidekick Flying Squirrel who keep the streets of Toronto safe from mad villains in the 1930s.  Each pair has their own show that can be downloaded as a podcast or played on your computer and smart devices.

The style of the shows are in the classic style of radio dramas, before TVs largely replaced the medium.  (And yet, coming full circle, perhaps, so many of us seek out the book-on-tape option to sneak texts into our busy lives.)  Certain aspects, common in this early style of story-types, whether in comic book, pulp fiction, dime novels, or radio programs, have been modernized.  The women are not uniformly helpless–in fact, Trixie Dixon, while still a knockout worthy of centerfold, is a pretty darn tough gun-toting sleuth, and the Flying Squirrel can rumble with any back-alley thug–and have key roles to play in the crime fighting and detecting.

This factor makes them rather more palatable than some of the classics they otherwise emulate.   While the programming is genuinely entertaining, the era is also recreated in an accessible manner.  For this reason, I think they have real potential in education.  Not only do they reproduce the era in their sordid tales of crime and justice, they also reproduce one of the major cultural experiences of the era: radio programming entertainment and news.  So, you could create a playlist that the students can access using one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire Side Chats and one of the shows from Decoder Ring Theatre.

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I wholeheartedly approve of teaching about other eras through experiences.  Reproducing the later years of the Depression through role-playing in built-in class scenarios is an excellent way to bring home the difficulties of the age.  For example, you could easily set aside a couple of classes and recreate the 1930s life within a scenario such as a town hall meeting or recreate a social gathering.  You could also recreate a fictional town and assign each student a character with a particular goal, for example:

  1. a few characters with different backgrounds can each search for a job from other classmates who own businesses
  2. several standard business-owners: bank, grocery, newspaper, etc.
  3. pick a blue-collar industry that supports the town and have the various roles filled: owner, foreman, workers
  4. standard town services: police, postman, doctor, etc.
  5. CCC/WPA project workers

In this way, the Decoder Ring Theatre could actually be assigned as homework along with a handful of other leisure activities that fit the bill–marbles and other games, baseball or football games on the radio, newspapers and comics, etc.  Other activities could be done in the class, such as canning–yes, I’m serious, just find a parent with a hot plate and a pressure-canner–sewing old clothes into new sizes (like letting a pair of pants out for someone who is growing or shortening them for a younger sibling), watch a news reel and movie from the era, hold a pot luck and have everyone bring in Depression-era recipes, etc.

Experiences are a great way to bring things home to students.  When a student takes on the role of a character, the real-life troubles of the character become much more real to him or her.  Assign primary sources to help the characters come alive.  And, leverage student interests–one of the real values of this approach to teaching.  If Suzy plays the trumpet she can take a look at the music of the era and be a musician as with other types of artists, many of who were specifically sought out by various federal programs.  If Carl is into cars, then make him a Packard dealer or a mechanic and let him study the historic forerunners of today’s automobiles.  Etcetera, etcetera.  Help them learn and get excited about it.  It’s ok if they have fun!  *wink*

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Hellenism spreads history and other Greek ideas. Part 2, of a web-based picture comics.

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Want to see Part I?  Click the title, here:  What is history?  A web-based picture comics in 3 parts.

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What is history? A web-based picture comic series in 3 parts

 

For Part II, click here:  Hellenism spreads history and other Greek ideas… Part II

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Teaching cultural exchange with art

A Cyprian Herakles

Roman copy of a Greek Herakles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Roman Hercules

Teaching cultural exchange is a great opportunity to collaborate with your art teachers and create multi-disciplined projects!  There are different ways to go about it.  One could recreate a historical artistic exchange by directing research into the original cultural expression and the newer, adopted art form.  One could demonstrate the concept by taking a historic art form and making it anew with today’s cultural iconography.  One could assign the design of an edifice that is blending cultures or build a model of an historical example that demonstrates cultural borrowing.

The Museum of Russian Iconography did something like this for field tripping students of Clinton Middle School.  In their blog post, “From Field Trip to Exhibiting Artists: Clinton Middle School & MORI Partnership,”  the museum blogger Julia Metzidakis explained the field trip, art-making, and exhibition for the middle school students.  Each student was encouraged to pick their own subject for the icon portrait.  Below, is an excerpt from the blog sharing some of the inspiration students used to pick their subjects:

“I picked JK Rowling because I admire her. She overcame the challenges of being a poverty-stricken  single mother and wrote what was is probably the most successful book series ever.  Joanne Rowling has inspired me to be a writer. Many people have been moved by her story, and have attempted to overcome their own challenges because of her. I hope one day to be as good a person as JK Rowling.”

“I picked Muhummad Ali because I like boxing. I also like sports.  He has determination like me to win. He never stops believing, just like I do.”

“I picked Michelle Obama because she is helping the world with healthy eating, getting outside, exercise and much more. Michelle is someone I look up to, a great role model. She is also very stylish and fun.”

Another way to try this is to look at book-making.  Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord has created entire career out of this concept of book-making from different cultures.  I harbor dreams of someday making an illuminated manuscript out of the Declaration of Independence, but what a great assignment it would be in understanding how certain documents are regarded by different societies.  (Add a twist and you could specify making one that is rich with 1776 iconography versus 21st century iconography, or evolving iconography from the last 200+ years.)  Illuminated manuscripts from the medieval era are, themselves, rich in cultural exchange–even the pigment used by early Irish and British artists reveals a layer of depth in exchange with blues coming from organic or mineral material as far away as India.

Of course, another way to approach this concept is to use entirely modern examples, but this highlights a potential danger in this type of exercise:  Don’t lose track of what you are trying to represent historically.  Remember that a project like this involves a lot of doing, which embeds the experience solidly in your students’ mental archive.  The memory will only maintain the art project if it is not tightly tied to the historical example and experience.  Ways to avoid this deficiency include the following (note: I mention exhibits below because this sort of exposition of the finished product tends to raise the stakes for the students in positive, motivating way):

  • require research as part of the art project (whether heavily directed or loosely guided, just make sure they are connecting good information with the project)
  • explanatory essay for an “exhibit book” or “exhibit display” or simply as an additional assignment
  • set up the art project as a direct metaphor for the historical example–this idea may translate the concept: Greco-Roman ideals contributed to a neo-classical national Capitol in Washington DC; so, design a school or university using the design concepts Thomas Jefferson’s home because of his advocacy of public education
  • assign extensive review of relevant artifacts and primary documents–encourage them to be thinking in character, as it were, as they are designing or creating, not just immersing themselves into a creative project of their own design (mimicry is an essential ingredient for the historical learning process)

I want to emphasize that I think a project such as this works best if sparsely used to highlight particularly relevant points.  The illuminated manuscripts of Ireland and Britain form the foundation for generations of illuminated books of Psalms, Gospels and Psalters made throughout Europe with varying effects and materials that often reflect the changing domestic and international economic and political exchanges.  The central importance of these religious documents to the literate contemporary culture can be correlated to the importance of America’s founding documents in our literate culture, today, thus making an illuminated Declaration of Independence, Constitution or Bill of Rights a relevant activity.  Furthermore, there are multiple opportunities to study centuries of European Medieval examples in museums, university archives, or online.  Cultural exchange can be demonstrated in an illuminated Constitution, for example, by accounting for the changing face of American culture with the subjugation of the western frontier and the introduction of various immigrant groups in the iconography used.

Keep an eye out for off-beat exhibitions that may also demonstrate the point.  For example, during the Japanese Internment, the living facilities were minimal, but the internees made some beautiful artwork out of functional objects, such as furniture.  That is the sort of museum exhibit that could fuel an art project, reinforced by the historical material.  If you live in a city with a strong connection to an operable sea dock and there was a locally hosted modern exhibit on sailors’ art, you could tie this closely to historical examples of exploration, sea voyages, etc.  Many exhibits are also created with correlating online  exhibits that can be used, too.

So, take advantage of a great opportunity for a collaborative and interesting project, but don’t overuse it.  Make sure it is on point and facilitates a better understanding of the culture you are studying.

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Art reveals historic cultural exchange

Greco-Roman Egyptian mummy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Throughout history we are aware of cultural exchange via descriptions of foreign culture and through the arts.  This is a particularly easy concept to convey, today, with the extensive globalization that has occurred through trade and technology.  Many folks, for example, are already familiar with the relatively new music genre of reggaeton, a blend of Caribbean (especially Jamaican) dance hall music, Latin American salsa, and Latin hip hop that grew out of American rap traditions.

The past offers many examples of architectural and artistic transmission from one culture to the next, sometimes revealing relations that were otherwise unknown to scholars.  This is, therefore, not a strictly historical area of research, as most examples are of architecture or artifacts–and these examples date back well before the historical record was established, providing revelations into the development of the earliest human cultures before permanent settlements were established.

Another area with copious evidence is in culinary culture.  We also see it in food, today, just as the Italians witnessed it with the introduction of Chinese and other Far Eastern noodles, creating pasta.  (The spice trade has been  longtime indicator of cultural exchange, and the Silk Road has revealed many secrets of cultural development and transmission.  It was along the route that some of the best evidence of the secret cult of the Manicheans was finally revealed, as opposed to the meager evidence within the realm of the Roman Empire where it was founded!)  So, foodways are another legitimate way to pursue this same idea.  (See Colonial Foodways, A delicious learning experience, for example.)

This idea was recently reinforced when I came across a fascinating YouTube video produced by the Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts via Twitter.  In it the museum explains with digital animation how a Russian icon is made.  What really makes this interesting is the knowledge that both Russian Orthodoxy and its icons come from Byzantine (or Greek) Orthodoxy.  For that matter, Cyrillic, the written language of Russia and parts of eastern Europe is the likely heir of a written language invented by Byzantine scholars Cyril and Methodious and derived from Greek in the mid-9th century (precise origins of Cyrillic and its inventor/s is under some dispute by scholars, today).

These sorts of cultural exchanges are richly represented in history through artifacts and historical commentary.  It is an inviting and exciting way to study history, especially when one recognizes one culture while studying another.

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