Phillips-At-Home Summer Activity: Storytelling and Perspective

Through this activity, we will take a look at a selection of Jacob Lawrence’s panels from his epic Migration Series and explore the way he tells a story through art. A series is a group of artworks that work together to tell one story. What connects these paintings to each other, and what makes them a series? Think about the stories Jacob Lawrence is telling and the story you would like to tell.

Lawrence 1_panels

(left) Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans., between 1940 and 1941, Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942; © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north., between 1940 and 1941, Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942; © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Look closely: Think about the stories being told in the panels, both individually and as a whole. Look at the way Lawrence layers objects and people. What do you think he is trying to tell us about home? What kind of stories can you tell about your home through art?

About the artist: Jacob Lawrence was born in September of 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His family, originally from South Carolina, moved north during the Great Migration, the movement of southern African Americans to northern cities. When he was 13, Lawrence and his family relocated to Harlem, a center of African American culture and community in New York City. It was here, in this environment, that Lawrence received his education. Lawrence’s work was largely inspired by the people and places he saw in his very own neighborhood.

The Migration Series tells the story of the hardships faced by African American families who traveled from their homes in the south all the way to the cities of the north. The series was first displayed as “a solo show at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan in 1941, making Lawrence the first black artist represented by a New York gallery.” The series has a total of 60 paintings, which have been split between The Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Lawrence 2_ materials


What you need for this activity

Colored Pencils, markers, or whatever you like to use for drawing

Plain white paper (more than one sheet)


Glue Stick

Your unique home or neighborhood


Age suggestion

7 and up



Option 1: Draw the things you know are in your home and/or neighborhood on a piece of paper. You will be cutting these drawings out and rearranging them, so keep them small; try to fit at least 8 drawings on a single piece of paper. If you choose this option you can skip to step 5.

Option 2: Make yourself a small sketchbook so you can go outside and draw the things you see!

Step 1: Fold your blank piece of paper in half, hamburger-style. To help make sure you have a good crease, try running the handle of your scissors along the fold. Then, unfold your paper and fold it in half again, hot dog style. When you unfold your paper, you should see four boxes.

Lawrence 2_step 1 2

Step 2: Lay your paper flat on the table so that the longer side is facing you. Next, fold each edge in towards the center like double doors. When you’re done with this and you unfold your paper, there should be 8 boxes.

Lawrence 2_step 3

Step 3: Now, exactly as you did in Step 1, fold your paper hamburger style. With the folded edge facing you, cut along the crease that divides the paper in half (with the help of an adult!), stopping at the midpoint where the other crease is. You will have cut halfway up the piece of paper starting from the folded edge.

Lawrence 2_step 4

Step 4: Unfold the paper again and, like you did in Step 2, fold it hotdog style. Carefully holding onto each edge of the paper, push it together until the cutout middle section has formed a diamond shape. Continue pushing until it looks like a plus sign and then keep pushing until you form your eight-page booklet! In later steps, when you have drawn on each of these pages, you will be able to unfold your booklet and have eight drawings each in their separate square.

Lawrence 2_step 5

Step 5: Draw people, buildings, animals, or plants that you see around your neighborhood that will help you tell your story. With an adult, you can take your sketchbook outside and go for a walk to see all of the different things that make your neighborhood unique.

Step 6: When you have enough drawings to tell your story, unfold your booklet and lay it flat on a table (or, if you chose option 1 and didn’t make a booklet, just lay your piece of paper flat on the table) and cut out each of your drawings. You may want to ask an adult to help you out with this step.

Lawrence 2_step 6

Step 7: Arrange the people, animals, and objects that you’ve drawn on a new piece of paper. Think about the way you are arranging them. Try to make some drawings look like they are in front of or behind others. Try as many different compositions as you’d like, and remember to think about which compositions will best tell the story you want to tell.

Lawrence 2_step 7

Step 8: When you’ve found the composition that you like best, glue down each of your drawings and add a background. Come up with a one-sentence caption for your artwork.

Lawrence final

Step 9: Repeat these 10 steps to make as many different panels as your story needs! It might need 3, and it might need 12; it’s entirely up to you.

Share your creation with family and friends; what stories do they see in your artwork?

Dupont in Detail: Woodrow Wilson House

Browsing through The Commons on Flickr, I came across these images of the Woodrow Wilson House, which I often pass by on S Street during a lunchtime walk. I didn’t know Wilson (who died on this day in 1924) was the only president to make Washington home after his time in office (I can’t image a president doing that now), making this the only presidential museum in town. Though not technically in the Dupont Circle neighborhood (rather in the adjacent neighborhood of Kalorama), the streets where the house is located are some of my favorite areas of the city, filled with embassies and home to the Spanish Steps–a great spot for a stroll after time in the galleries.

S Street Residence, front view

Front view of President Wilson's S Street residence in Washington, D.C. Date unknown.

Dupont in Detail: Walking the Walk

Photo from my walk to work, a mural on 17th Street. Photo: Jess Stephens

The spotty, wheezing internet in my Chicago apartment could not accommodate the street level Google map of the Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights neighborhoods in much detail. So in 2007, I moved to D.C. armed only with the images of an unbelievably picturesque November week during a manic educational visit as a teenager.

Before I lived in D.C., I spent over two hours per day commuting on public transit. Long commutes can be a reader’s oasis. A big part of me pines for the pacing and adventure extended commute reading lends to the rest of the day, but long commutes also foster a disconcerting myopia. A fellow bus rider once had to ask me twice if I had a cell phone, needing to call 911 because a man three rows in front of me was having a grandmal seizure. Routinely oscillating between the fiction of stories and actual reality within the collective can seep into non-commute time and dull or disconnect the experiences of daily work and joy.

All of this is to say I was quite excited and curious about my new commute: a twenty-five minute walk to work at The Phillips Collection. D.C. has wonderful density and a kaleidoscope of neighborhoods contending with any number of transposed architectural styles in each square mile.

My commute awakens my legs at the beginning and end of the day. It eliminates the uncertainty of when I will finally be in my cube or home once I’m out the door. It adds a sonic overlay of construction, nature, and myriad shoe heels to the music coming through my headphones instead of just the deafening hum of traffic or trains. Yet, what I seem to have internalized most is the ritual. My walk to and from work does not symbolize anything. It’s not a substitute for exercise or meditation. Nor is it something utilitarian that I have to do everyday, like eating, since I could get to work a number of different ways. Each time I embark on foot, it simply generates value in and of itself because all of my senses are present. Value that I think cannot be deconstructed into irrelevance as many rituals that do not privilege practical function are and should be in the contemporary world.

Jess Stephens, Staff Accountant