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Train Station by Walter Ellison

Train Station by Walter Ellison, courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago

Walter Ellison's Train Station (1936) depicts white and black travelers departing from a central terminal, bound for different cities. The composition reflects the social values of the time, which prevented members of the two races from mixing. On the left, white passengers board trains for vacations in the South, while on the right, African American passengers head for trains going to northern cities where they hoped to find better jobs and living conditions. The station depicted here may be the very place here Ellison, in 1920, boarded a train heading north, joining the more than six million African American s that also left their rural southern homes after World War I . Ellison traveled to Chicago, the nation's industrial center, where migrants could find potential jobs in meat packing and rail and steel mills. Although discrimination was inescapable, the city offered acceptable schools, voting rights, and leisure activities. Once in Chicago, Ellison studied at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Questions to Ask

What is the first thing that you see? This is the focal point. The focal point is what first draws your eye, something that stands out.

The white passengers in this painting are headed south toward Miami for vacations. How are they dressed? Where is Miami? (Show students on map) Why do you think Miami is a popular vacation spot?

The African American passengers are headed north in search of more freedom and better paying jobs. How are they dressed? How is this different from the white passengers? How do you think each set of passengers is feeling about their journey?

What kinds of jobs you think were available in Chicago for the African American passengers? Are these jobs still needed today? Do you think that they paid well?

What colors do you see? Look for the suitcase in which the artist pained his initials- W.W.E. Why do you think he painted them?

What do you think the trains and the train station symbolize? The can symbolize movement, the future, and the hope for prosperity. On the other hand it could stand for displacement, dispossession, and loss. How do you think Ellison was feeling when he boarded his train?

How does Ellison use perspective in this painting? The sharply exaggerated perspective creates a space that appears physically inaccessible, perhaps symbolizing remote destinations and unimaginable conditions at the end of the journey.

Activities for the Classroom

Additional information: ArtAccess at the Art Institute of Chicago®.

Bring in a CD of jazz to play in the background during the presentation.

Ask the students to create and then discuss a picture that represents a trip they have taken or ask them to create a postcard with a drawing on one side and a description on the back. Where did they go? What did they pack? Who did they travel with? What did they do when they got there?

Describe the suitcases or bags the travelers in Train Station are carrying. What would you guess was in each of them? Ask the students to create their own suitcase. Using shoeboxes or other containers, or paper template, have students decorate their suitcase according to where they want to go. Ask them to write the words or draw pictures of items that they would like to take with them on their trip and place them inside the suitcase.

Divide the students in 2 groups. Give the one group cutouts of a briefcase, the other group cutouts of a backpack. Tell the one group they are going to Chicago to work, the other group they are going to Chicago as tourists. Let them illustrate what they would pack for the specific purpose of travel.

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