It was during a recent conversation with one of our faculty, that made me pause and consider Louise Bourgeois’ Spider at the National Gallery of Art. To be honest, I wasn’t immediately drawn to this piece. I’m admittedly not a big fan of spiders, but, as is often the case, when you learn more about something it opens up new doors.
Size and Location
On the surface, this piece has a lot of elements that make it ideal for young audiences, most noticeably its location. I truly enjoy being in sculpture gardens. They are an all-ages space – conducive to movement and activity for children and still, contemplative, and provocative in a way that appeals to adults. The sculpture garden is a community space akin to a central square or other public space that features art. It is family friendly space that speaks to different generations who can learn and be inspired.
The piece is also worth highlighting for its size and 3-dimensional nature. While I rarely say “no” to using smaller artworks, a large piece that allows a child to move around it and view it from multiple perspectives, is always ideal. So caregivers and educators, if you visit, make sure that you leave time for ample careful looking. Notice things like the texture of the material, the details of the legs, and how it looks from different perspectives.
The artwork is an ideal segue into STEM, social emotional, and literary learning. First, it’s a spider. Spiders, while not always a crowd favorite, serve an important and definitive purpose in ecology. As an insect eater…. Young children don’t always see spiders as important or as helpers, but this immense artwork provides the opportunity to introduce the spider in a way that is new to a child. This makes me particularly excited as we think about museums as catalysts for children for learning about and protecting their community. In this case, being able to impart some information about the importance of spiders in our ecosystem, one can help children connect to their environment and understand that all living things play a valuable role.
My colleague recently shared with me about the significance of the spider. Ms. Bourgeois created spiders in the latter part of her career as a symbol of her mother. Like the spider, she saw her mother as a protector. She viewed her as strong, but also vulnerable. While these are abstract concepts for young children, they can be illustrated by looking closely at the spider. Notice that it is large and tall, yet its legs outstretched like a hug. The spider is a childhood recollection, so the spider’s size is like that of an adult. Have the children imagine a favorite adult, how do they express their love or what do they do to help keep you safe.
Though I would not likely add onto this during a single lesson with young children, its worth noting that spider’s figure is also very delicate. I encourage you to look closely and find what areas of the sculpture look vulnerable or contradict its overall looming presence. Interestingly, Bourgeois’ memories of her mother reflect her father’s ten-year affair with her governess.
Finally, for learners of all ages, connecting art to literature is a way to enhance and build on both the literary and visual experiences. The first thing that came to mind was Charlotte’s Webb, but of course there are many child friendly stories out there that would accompany this sculpture. For example, Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider.
Go on a hunt for spiders and spider webs.
Create a web together using string.
Visit the Insect Zoo and look for different types of spiders or Learning Lab – notice similarities and differences.
Spiders have eight legs, but did you know that most spiders have eight eyes too.
Make spider webs by laying paper down in an aluminum pan and moving tiny balls around that have been dipped in paint.