Creativity Exercise – Story Telling from Art Postcards and the Surprising Results

Wow!  My students blew me away today, but not really in a good way.  One of my goals this year is to have more creativity exercises interspersed throughout the year to help stretch their creativity muscle.  I have a very large art postcard collection, so last night I had this idea of selecting postcards that had some sort of narrative aspect to the work, staying away from obvious narratives like religious scenes.  I selected quite a variety, including the work of Frederic Edwin Church, Edward Hopper, Duane Hanson, Gustav Klimt and Sandro Botticelli.  I had 30 cards selected; some cards were famous paintings, others not.

I conducted this exercise with my sophomore Honors class, both Honors Art II and Sculpture II students.  I started the activity by passing out one sheet of computer paper to each student and had each of them select a card (the backside of the postcard was all that was visible to them so they couldn’t see what they were getting) from the fan of cards I held in my hands.  Next, they wrote the title of the artwork at the top of their paper.  I gave them one minute to begin a story about the image they had – I asked them to write their name and the word “beginning” on the paper, and when I said “Go!”, they would start their story.  When the minute was up, all papers and their image postcards were passed to another person who would write the middle of the story – they also had one minute.  When that time period was up, the paper and postcard was passed to the last person who would write the end of the story.

They had a great time doing this, and after we finished, asked if we could do this every week!  Wonderful!  So happy to have my students excited and engaged!  I gathered up all of the stories and postcards and took them to the Elmo to project for all to see, and to read their quick stories.  Each group called out which postcard I should read next!  They were so excited, and happily, we had enough time in class to read all of the stories.

But, when I started reading the stories, I became dismayed and puzzled.  Out of 25 postcard stories:

  • 4 stories centered around boredom
  • 13 stories centered around death (by shark, by bombing, by dragons, or other mysterious causes)
  • 1 story centered around tyranny
  • 3 stories included drinking in the scenario (and not lemonade like the story below)
  • 1 story alluded to a 16 year old girl’s rape

Really?!?  These are the stories our children are coming up with?  I can assure you that the postcards I gave them were not of bloody battle scenes but more of the bucolic pastorale narrative type.  I am truly dismayed about these tales.  One story, which showed 2 small children with water balloons in the kitchen was a gruesome tale of killing their oldest sister with a gun while she was doing homework and pushing her out the kitchen window into the small blow up pool below.  They also killed their father, who met the same fate, then dumped the water balloons on the bodies.  This is crazy stuff.  I did read the stories, as I wasn’t sure where they were headed, and of course, they knew what they had written. They howled at their tales.  As each story came along with these terrible themes, my heart fell.  What is informing our children’s imagination?  Death?  Killing?  Boredom?

I imagined I would write a post about this and include a postcard and the story that goes with it, but I have to say, there is hardly one I care to share with my reader.  There are a couple I will post here:

Frederic_Edwin_Church_The_IcebergsFrederic Edwin Church’s, The Icebergs, 1861, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art

  • (Beginning) Hook finally opened his salt-crusted eyes.  He vaguely took in the scenic ambiance around him, and then saw his ship.  It was a wreck.
  • (Middle) He decided to go back to sleep because he was that kind of guy.  After sleeping what seemed like 3 hours, he climbed down and decided to ride out on seals to look for his comrades.
  • (End) Plot twist!  He slept for 70 years instead.  Everyone he loved was dead, now he had only the seals for company.  His tears plopped into the ocean, salt mixing with salt.


Henri Manguin, Femme à l’ombrelle, 1905, oil on canvas, 24 in. x 19 5/8 in.

  • (Beginning) In the flower beds overlooking a river in Rome, Lucille sat under the shade of a tree and her orange umbrella.  Her sister,
  • (Middle) was a clown in the circus downtown and orange was her favorite color.  As she sat enjoying the sun, a man walked towards her.
  • (End) Lucille was very scared.  This man, a shady figure approaching her, who could this be?  The man jumps at Lucille.  Lucille is frightened to see that it was her sister disguised as a man.


Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, 1951, oil on canvas, 29″ x 40 1/2″

  • (Beginning) We were just sitting down to eat dinner hearing the nice ocean waves outside the door.  This was the first time I’ve been on a cruise.
  • (Middle) They looked outside for a good view and saw sharks trying to eat people.  They wanted to help…
  • (End) Being a fan of shark week, I decided not to help because sharks are dangerous so we closed the door and listened to ‘Summer Breeze’ while drinking an ice cold lemonade.  That was the best summer I ever had.


Paul Cézanne, Peasant in a Blue Smock, oil on canvas, 31 3/8″ x 25″, Kimbell Art Museum

  • (Beginning) His beloved wife passed away and with those memories on his mind, this old and lonely man was sitting at his porch.
  • (Middle) While he was sitting on the porch, he could remember those days when his wife would be coming home, walking under the sun holding an umbrella.
  • (End) When his wife was tragically killed by a sudden bout of hiccups, his life was changed forever.  He painted his whole house blue, her favorite color, and only wore blue to represent his feelings and in memory of her.

I believe that’s enough for you to get the idea.  I’m not going to give up on this activity, they did love it so.  But I wonder if I have to put some parameters around the nature of their story?  I want this to be their thinking, but I find their collective thinking to be morose and gruesome.  I would love some feedback from you, dear reader.  Would you give them more direction, or let their storytelling go where it goes?  Would you query them about this line of thinking?  How would you handle a situation such as this?

4 thoughts on “Creativity Exercise – Story Telling from Art Postcards and the Surprising Results”

  1. Your students’ stories remind me of the ones my teenage grandsons make up, filled with gore, potty humor, goofy situations, and generally bad behavior. These boys are straight A students yet this is what they find amusing. They don’t understand why I don’t share their enthusiasm for this stuff. Perhaps they do it for shock value, but whatever the reason, it will be lovely when they out grow it.
    Keep plugging away — giving parameters could serve as a challenge to think of something other than how to shock the teacher. Good luck.

    PS: “Peasant in a Blue Smock” is my favorite painting at the Kimball. We had an electrician in Italy who looked exactly like this; it was like having a bit of home whenever I saw him.

  2. I do not think you should give up on this activity at all!! This seems like a really great way to get students to think about the artwork they’re looking at, and they obviously enjoyed the social aspect of the activity. First you have to think about the types of video games, television shows, and movies that are advertised to teens these days. A large portion of these things depict the same kind of story lines that the students wrote about. Plus, they’re from a generation that is completely immersed in video games and other visual media for most of their free time. PG13 and R ratings don’t mean what they meant 15 or 20 years ago. These kids are growing up in an increasingly violent world where people are growing more and more apathetic every year. I know this is all very morose and fatalist-minded but it’s closer to the truth than fiction. They also have no idea that the things they see and vicariously live through can effect their consciousness as much as a “real” incident can. It can be tough to say that they can’t write what they imagine from the title, because a lot of artwork actually does reference some of those same topics… SO- if I were faced with this same situation I would probably spend the next class period talking to them about why they would write these kinds of stories (because I would really want to know what made them so write such morbid things). Ask them what prompted them and exactly what their thinking was when they read the titles. You might find that they were just being ridiculous because they knew their friends would see what they wrote and they were afraid to write what they really thought. Or maybe they’re just hardwired that way from all the visual input they receive daily. (I’ll hope it’s the first and not the later, because we might all be in trouble otherwise). I would even give a whole class period to that because I think talking through it and finding out whats really going on is a valuable learning experience not only for you but for them too- even if they were just being silly. Maybe they need to be told that the art classroom is a safe space to be expressive and take risks. And maybe I’m being idealistic or hopeful, but a big part of me thinks their stories were for show and they were being silly. Maybe if you talk to them about it that will help you assess the situation and also find out what boundaries you need to put in place for the next activity if needed. Good luck! I can’t wait to find out what you do next 🙂

  3. Given the propensity for violence in the classroom these days, as a teacher I would restrict writings of violence. What if one of your students went nuts, and the writings in your classroom became an issue? I don’t think you are a counselor, and should not bring up a discussion. You might want to go talk to the school counselor yourself about the writings, and get her or his thoughts. I don’t think violence in writing is an abnormal occurrence during teenage years, however I would restrict them from writing about violence in your classroom, and set them in a different direction, as you are the teacher, and can do this.

  4. I agree the stories are a little upsetting. If there were other “happy” stories that offset these, I would think that we were getting a fairly decent cross section of teenage Americans. But, it does not sound like that is the case. However, imagination being what it is, shouldn’t be limited. This does not mean that it cannot be channeled. Maybe on the next postcard assignment, remind the students that they did such a terrific job on the last assignment that this time it will be a little harder. Still have one minute to write the beginning, middle and end, but this time they must include one of the following phrases, such as “peace and love” or “loving family” or “awesome world”, etc. it might require a tiny bit more work on your part, but might steer the students into a more positive scenario. Good luck and I look forward to hearing how the next session goes.

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