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Markham Elementary and Ansel Adams

Erica Huber teaches art to Kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Markham Elementary in Southwest Portland. Like teachers everywhere, she had to reinvent her teaching practice this year for distance learning. She packaged art supplies for students to use at home and recorded videos of herself for lessons that students could take asynchronously. Huber sought ways to provide the kind of comprehensive learning experience that her students used to have in person. She found inspiration in Ansel Adams in Our Time.

“In one of the art bags I delivered to students, they received a six-color tempera cake palette, paintbrush, water cup, and paper towel,” Huber said. “When I realized Ansel Adams would be our Heart of Portland focus artist, I decided to create a painting lesson on value using the black and white paint from the tempera palette. Even though Ansel Adams’ work is photography, I was concerned that asking my students to use their device as a camera might exclude students that didn’t completely understand their camera function. My focus was to help students create a value painting in the style of Ansel Adams photography using just black and white tempera paint.”

Some of Huber’s students are only five years old. But even wise 11-year-olds need a hook. Huber knows that, for her lessons to be effective, she must help her students relate to the artist they’re studying. In Ansel Adams, she found a good story. In 1906, when Adams was only 4, an aftershock of the San Francisco earthquake threw him to the ground and broke his nose. When he started school, he was teased for his unusual proboscis. Adams’ parents eventually decided to tutor him at home, an experience that allowed him to nurture his love of nature through long walks on the beach and to develop his identity as an artist—initially a pianist, later a photographer.

Huber introduced her students to Ansel Adams’ work by creating and showing a brief story video of his life. She focused on his childhood and his initial inspiration to take landscape photographs in Yosemite National Park on a family vacation.

She then created a video lesson for Grades K-2 on how to draw and paint a mountain scene using many different shades of gray. After drawing a simple mountainscape, she showed them all the values they could make using just black and white paint from their tempera palette. The goal was to experiment with values to create an artwork that had the style of an Ansel Adams black-and-white photo. She taught them simple techniques to add shadows to snow-capped peaks and trees to the valley below.

Grades 3–5 watched a different lesson video. Huber had students focus on Ansel Adams’ Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park: “We talked about the dark shadows cast by the steep cliffs. We talked about how the sky in the photo has darker grays at the top and gradually gets lighter gray as it goes between the canyons. We looked for very light areas along the cliff edges and top. I encouraged the students to use the full spectrum from black to white and all the shades in between. I suggested making sky brush strokes to go side-to-side horizontally and the cliff brush strokes more vertical to get texture. I also taught the students a simple way to make trees in the valley below.”

Erica’s goal in all of her teaching is that every student feel successful. “The more that children have experiences where they feel success, the more likely they are to feel brave in other areas of their lives,” she said. “I want everyone to walk out of this room feeling like they are an amazing artist.”

Ansel Adams’ work is especially meaningful to Huber. “In 2014, my healthy, happy son died unexpectedly while running on the track. An undetected heart defect took his life. During the last seven years, I have found tremendous comfort in the mountains. I take weekly hikes, year-round, and my favorite places are alpine peaks. Viewing these stunning summits comforts my grief and brings me needed joy. I’m grateful for protectors like Ansel Adams who helped preserve these magical places.”

We are grateful to you, Erica Huber, for bringing so much heart and so much thoughtfulness to your teaching. Thank you, Erica’s students, for sharing your wonderful artwork with us!

See more student artwork in the full PPS Heart of Portland online gallery, and learn more about Ansel Adams’ photography in our online experience of Ansel Adams in Our Time. The exhibition is on view at the Museum through August 1, 2021, and kids 17 and under always visit for free.