Using Art to Tell A Story: Harriet Tubman and the Underground RxR Through the Eyes of Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringgold


Grades: 5

 This art project will be part of a collaborative with the students’ social studies teacher. The grade 5 American History/Language Arts curriculum includes writing a biography.



Motivation:  Artist’s sometimes use their work to communicate ideas and tell a story. Students will listen to the words and observe illustrations from books written and illustrated by two African American artists of the 20th c. about the same topic, ‘Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky,’ by Faith Ringgold and ‘Harriet and the Promised Land,’ by Jacob Lawrence.


Once the books have been shared with the students, create a list citing the similarities and differences between each book. This list might include:




Lawrence’s book is a third person account of the slaves march towards the ‘Promised Land.’ It is written like an account of the exodus from Egypt.


Provide some background information

At the end of ‘Aunt Harriet and the Underground Railroad’, Faith Ringgold provides a useful synopsis of Harriet Tubman’s life and the Underground Railroad. It was taken from Sarah Hopkins Bradford’s autobiography of Harriet Tubman, ‘Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman’, written in 1869. It is important to make sure the students know that the Underground RXR was not about a train transporting people to freedom but organized groups of people and individuals providing money and shelter so slaves could make their way North. The real conductors were white sympathizers, free-born African Americans and escaped slaves. The title of Ringgold’s book and the images of the children boarding a train could be confusing. I would draw attention to the quilt pictured on the roof of a house mentioning that currently there is no evidence that quilts were used to guide slaves to freedom or safe houses. In the South secrecy was an important part of the success of the escapes but in the North activities were often published and people clearly knew those who were aiding slaves. Northerners could argue that they had a legal right to protect the safety of free blacks living in their midst, who were in danger of being kidnapped by Southerners to return to slavery. The book, ‘The Underground Railroad,’ (1872) by William Still provides us with the most complete source of historical documentation of some of those escapes.


Project: to be done in collaboration with their teacher

Students will choose an historical figure of interest and investigate that person’s life using library books and/or internet resources. They will locate a picture of that person.

The information will be brought to the art room and they will create an art project to ‘tell the story’ of that person. They will make paper mache 3Dhuman figures using empty coffee creamer bottles (such as those from Coffeemate) as an armature. Fabric will be sewn into a costume and a ‘prop’ for the figure will be created. A written synopsis of their accomplishments will be displayed with the figure.

The project should take 4 weeks.




Empty coffee creamer bottles     paper mache paste (I like Ross’s)         newspaper

Pipe cleaners                               bowls/plastic containers for paste 

Material/findings                        masking tape                         **large wooden bead

Paint-tempra or acrylic               brushes                            s  water plus containers


The Process:

Week One

·         Prepare paste according to directions and put into large bowls

·         Cover all working surfaces with several layers of newspaper and tear additional newspaper into approximately 1” strips.

·         Twist pipe cleaners around the middle of the creamer bottle and wrap pipe cleaners with some newspaper and tape to give thickness to the arms. Bend into position.

·         Dip one strip of newspaper at a time into the paste. Using fingers, remove excess liquid and wrap the wet strips around the entire armature making sure the paper is smoothed before adding a new piece. Overlap pieces until the figure has been covered with about 3-4 layers of paper strips. Let dry.


***alternative method: if you do not have coffee creamer containers, an armature of a ‘person’ can be formed from a large wooden bead and 2 long pipe cleaners. Fold 1 pipe cleaner in half and put the wooden bead through the folded end. Twist the top so the bead stays on. At the bottom you have 2 legs. Leaving some room for a ‘neck’ twist the 2nd pipe cleaner around the 1st to form shoulders and arms. Newspaper and tape can be used to add thickness to the form before layering it with paper mache strips. Continue with weeks 2-4. Figures can be glued or staples onto a heavy piece of cardboard/matte board for display.

Week Two

·         Paint areas of the body that will show; head, neck, arms and hands.

·         Plan and sketch the outfit and prop.


Weeks Three and Four

·         Design the clothing and accessories the figure should wear and using material sew an outfit

·         Create a prop that would have likely been used by this ‘person.’

·         A synopsis will be written in their social studies/computer class. It will be typed and then displayed with the figure in a showcase.




All projects will be displayed for a group evaluation. Students will indicate if they adhered to the following criteria:

·         The figure represents an historical person

·         The paper mache figure is well made, the costume and prop is neatly done and makes sense considering its period in history

·          The written piece is both neat and accurate.





Lawrence, Jacob, ‘Harriet and the Promised Land,’ Simon and Schuster, NY, 1993

Ringgold, Faith, ‘Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky,’ Crown Publishers Inc., NY