The Return of Art History

By Lily Mottet, Current Staff

For West art teacher Deborah Prahl, teaching Advanced Placement Art History has been a goal for a long time.

The class was last taught at the West Bend High Schools seven years ago, when East art teacher Jay Krueger led the class. Until the 2019-2020 school year, there was not enough student interest to fulfill the minimum requirement of enrolled students. The class focuses on the development of art spanning from 24th century BCE to modern day. Students are required to understand a variety of art terminology, basic identifiers of 250 art pieces and the historical context of each piece. 

With a unique subject matter as a focus, the class attracts a diverse group of students. 

“The AP Art History class is for anyone interested in art,” Prahl said. “The class population includes art students and students who are interested in the subject but may not have an art background.” 

Braden Hetzel, a West senior, enrolled in the course with a vast knowledge of history and an appreciation of art. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with art and literature and everything of that sort,” Hetzel said. “I figured since I’m also a huge fan of history that this would be the perfect combination to express those interests in a new way.” 

East junior Joscelynne Clark decided to add AP Art History to her list of art classes she has taken at the high school for a different reason.

“I want to be an art teacher when I’m older, so I decided to take this class to broaden my knowledge of art,” Clark said. 

West senior Braden Hetzel presents his rendition of a Tlatilco figure on Nov. 5. Tlatilco figures are small ceramic pieces from Central Mexico roughly 3,000 years before the Aztec Empire. Photo by Lily Mottet.

In July, Prahl attended the AP Art History Institute at Columbia College in Chicago to learn the updated curriculum that included specific historical art thinking skills, works of art and the new AP Classroom website used by students. 

AP Classroom allows teachers to use questions from past AP tests in order to check students’ understanding of the subject matter. The progress checks for this particular course highlight the importance of making connections between art, history and the modern day. 

“We study art to better understand our world and how we got to where we are,” Prahl said. “Art is woven into all aspects of our lives: social, political, and religious.” 

In analyzing the context of the works of art, Hetzel finds a new appreciation for his general interest in art. 

“It seems that it was a relative disadvantaged to come in with simply an appreciation for art because that appreciation only goes so far,” Hetzel said. “But understanding the context of, say, imperialism or changes in the social and political structures, helps immensely in knowing how these pieces ultimately come to be formed.” 

“We study art to better understand our world and how we got to where we are.”
– Deborah Prahl, West art teacher

Prahl has taken advantage of the lack of an established curriculum to develop activities that appeal to the students’ interests. Students have taken class periods to experiment with creating their own artworks using the same techniques, materials and styles of studied works. 

“We started with ‘Clay Days’ where we worked in the style of Greek and Tlatilco cultures,” Prahl said. “Over the next few months, we will try Islamic calligraphy, different kinds of paintings and maybe stained glass.” 

The small class size allows for the students to work together as a whole class or in smaller groups and discuss similarities and differences in the studied works. 

“It’s kind of like a family in this class,” Clark said. “And I like that.”

For Prahl, working with this group of students has been incredibly rewarding.

“We are on this journey together,” Prahl said. “We are figuring out new material, new educational platforms and new ways of thinking about art.”

(Top image: East junior Natalie White and West junior Eleri Extence work during the Nov. 5 Clay Days. Photo by Lily Mottet, Current Staff.)

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