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George Segal: American Still Life montage of Segal images including "The Diner", "McDonalds", and "Cinema"
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These classroom resources are designed to be used in conjunction with this web site, other material on the Internet, and the GEORGE SEGAL: AMERICAN STILL LIFE video for a study of memorial artwork and its relationship with American history and society. These materials are designed for middle school level students, but they could be adapted for use by older or younger students.


George Segal (1924-2000) was one of America’s most respected and popular artists. He was best known for his life-size plaster sculptures of ordinary people doing ordinary things, which he created by covering friends and relatives with plaster-soaked surgical bandages. He would then place these figures in realistic environments, such as a subway car or bus seat. This juxtaposition of a commonplace setting with Segal’s ghostly, lifelike figures can be deeply unsettling, deeply moving, or both at once. The documentary GEORGE SEGAL: AMERICAN STILL LIFE explores Segal’s work through his own words and actions; he creates a new sculpture, talks about how and why he makes his art and what it means to him, and other artists, critics, and art historians assess Segal’s impact on American culture.


After he became established as an artist, Segal was frequently asked to make sculptures that would commemorate moments in history, such as the Kent State shootings, the Holocaust, or the Great Depression. In the documentary he describes the artistic, intellectual, and emotional processes that lead him to the final image. Sometimes he depicted an event literally; other times he used metaphor to convey his intentions. These exercises explore some of the devices artists--and all of us--use to tell stories and express ourselves.



Students will:

  • Understand the meaning and use of metaphors and parables.
  • Practice translating metaphors and parables from words into visual images and symbols.
  • Compare and contrast similar but different stories, as Segal did, by linking a current or historical event with a folk tale, legend, fable, or Bible story.
  • Understand the terms iconography and archetype.
  • Analyze how artists and writers use metaphors and symbols to communicate.


Conduct an informal poll to find out how familiar students are with the following historical events: The Kent State Shootings (1970), The Holocaust, and the Great Depression. If they are unfamiliar, provide basic background information. Ask them if they have ever visited a memorial or monument, and have them describe the experience. What or who was being memorialized? How did the art or architecture at the site reflect that? Why do people create memorials? Ask them to think about how an artist might come up with an idea for a memorial, and explain that in the documentary, we will learn how one artist, George Segal, created sculptures to commemorate important, often tragic, moments in history.


This lesson addresses the following national content standards found at The Kennedy Center, ArtsEdge for Visual Arts:

Content Standard #1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes

Content Standard #2: Using knowledge of structures and functions

Content Standard #3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Content Standard #4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

Content Standard #5: Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others

Content Standard #6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

Activity 1:

  • Review the section of the documentary about the making public art and the Kent State Memorial "Abraham and Isaac" sculpture. (40:00 - 43:00, IN: "About 20 years ago, a new fashion for public sculpture....". OUT:" ..much more about ethics than it is aesthetics".) Read the Public Sculpture page of the web site in the transcripts section In His Own Words. Discuss and analyze why Segal thought the story of Abraham and Isaac is a metaphor for the Viet Nam War.
  • Collectively, think of a news story or recent event the students would like to memorialize with a work of art. Then, choose a fable, folk tale, legend, or biblical story that can serve as a metaphor or parable, just as Segal connected Abraham and Isaac with the generational conflict the Viet Nam War created.
  • EXTENSION: Create the work of art.

Activity 2:

  • Review the section of the documentary about The Holocaust Memorial. (43:00 - 47:00, IN: "You know, I changed my mind about ‘The Holocaust’ piece of George’s..." OUT: "...he’s transformed the heroic dead into a higher realm, I believe.") Read Segal’s description of making the piece in the Public Sculpture page of the web site in the transcripts section In His Own Words. Remind the students that Segal’s art dealer Carroll Janis says of the subject matter: "It’s an impossible theme". Discuss why it is difficult to make art about the Holocaust. Ask the students why they think Segal chose a literal representation of the death camps, instead of a metaphor.
  • Assignment: A) research and write a paper comparing memorials of the same event, such as Holocaust Memorials around the world, or War Memorials of the same war. Compare and contrast the different approaches, and analyze how successful they are. What defines a "successful" work of art? B) Design and sketch your own monument for a major historic event. Present it to the class, and describe your creative decision making process.


  • EXTENSION: Visit a local monument or memorial, and analyze how and why it was created.

Activity 3:

Review the section of the documentary about the FDR Memorial. (46:00 - :49:00, IN: "It was close to twenty years ago I was asked to join...".OUT: " should be about the dreams of poor immigrants.") Read about what these sculptures mean to Segal in the Public Sculpture page of the web site in the transcripts section In His Own Words. Discuss why Segal chose images of the Great Depression to memorialize Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Are these images considered icons or archetypes? Talk about how people of different ages might respond differently to these images.


  • Assignment: Research other examples of Depression imagery, such as photography, films, music, painting and sculpture. Compare and contrast the different kinds of creative expression of that era.
  • EXTENSION: Design a cultural time capsule for our own time. What will be the icons and archetypes of our time?


In the group discussions or presentations, students may be evaluated based on their oral contributions. Students should be able to refine the questions that they ask in response to artworks, leading them to an appreciation of multiple artistic solutions and interpretations.

In written work, the students should be able to select and transform ideas, discriminate, synthesize and appraise, and understand that making and responding to works of visual art are inextricably interwoven. Papers should show evidence of increased perception, analysis, and critical judgment.

For creative activities such as designing a monument, making a painting or sculpture, or preparing an exhibit for public display, they may be evaluated on both the content and execution of the project. They should be familiar with a variety of images and approaches, and learn that preferences of others may differ from their own.

When students are asked to place art in historical and cultural contexts, they should be evaluated on their ability to make connections between different subjects and disciplines. They should display an understanding of how art is influenced by aesthetic ideas as well as by social, political, economic, and other factors. Through these efforts, students develop an understanding of the meaning and import of the visual world in which they live.

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