Green Band Explores Color Meaning Around the World

Over the first four weeks of the Rainbow Arc, the Greenies have been studying color meaning in different cultures around the world. This exploration was inspired by a conversation that we had as a band on Chinese New Year (during Spark Arc), when I’d come to school wearing a red shirt and “gold” (yellow) pants. Both colors signify good luck and fortune in Chinese culture, and are traditionally worn for the New Year as well as other celebratory occasions, such as weddings. While I explained this to the Greenies, we talked about other color meaning in Chinese culture, and they were surprised to hear that the color white is representative of death and mourning, an association that seems counterintuitive considering Westerners often associate it with purity and blank slates. Once Rainbow started, we decided to take a deeper dive into what these different colors mean in different places and to different people. We kicked this off with a free-association brainstorm of what we think of around different colors.

Green Band free-association color brainstorm.

After collecting our various associations with colors, each student picked one color to be their “focus color.” This would be the color that they study in depth to understand what it means in different parts of the world. We had four main goals and skills to develop during this study: research, note-taking, growing our understanding of different colors, and then presenting that information. Blaise and Ramses picked black, Apollo chose yellow, Soleil studied white, Sadie did red, Tamsen and Sakira picked purple, Isaac chose blue, and Lars did orange. (I modeled by studying green.)

Sadie and Isaac takes notes on their focus colors, red and blue.

In the Band Space, students read articles, books, and watched videos that talked about the meaning of their color in different places. Using our various sources, the Greenies practiced taking notes based on what style worked best for them, most chose to use bullet points. Some students found that they occasionally learned conflictual information about their color, which made things a little tricker.

Ramses sharing what he learned about the color black in different East Asian countries.

This exploration was also one of our most field-trip packed. Out on the field, the Greenies visited three different museums—the Asian Art Museum, the Legion of Honor, and the de Young. We also took a walking tour of 24th street. Our first trip was to the Asian Art Museum, where we looked specifically at the Chinese, Korean and Japanese collection. During our visits to the museum, Greenies were asked to look specifically for their color, and then to compare the way their color was being used in the art piece to the information they had learned through research in the Band Space. For example, I learned that green in China can be a color associated with good luck and happiness, which is part of the reason jade is so popular. At the Asian Art Museum, I found jade jewelry which I believed was probably worn as a way to bring good fortune onto its wearer.

Lars, Sakira and Tamasen seeking out their focus colors in Chinese snuff bottles at the Asian Art Museum.

Our trip to the Legion of Honor focused primarily on Western Art, with a lot of Christian imagery, as well as Greek and Roman mythological references. We did a scavenger hunt there, looking for different colors being used in specific symbolic ways, for example images of red as a sign of war or violence. Something else that the students noticed at the Legion was the lack of diversity in many of the subjects. Greenies pointed out that it was almost all white people in the art pieces.

Blaise observing a colorful piece of Christian art at the Legion of Honor.

Based on this observation of the lack of representation, we decided to shift our focus for our trip to the de Young. Instead of only looking for our focus colors, the Greenies were also challenged to notice who was featured and who was not in the paintings. (Or perhaps, who was featured in the backgrounds, on the sides, as accessories to the main event?) We watched Titus Kaphar’s TED Talk “Can Art Amend History?” to inspire us. At the de Young, students specifically sought out figures in the art pieces that clearly weren’t intended to be at the center of the painting, and imagine what they might ask or say to those less prominent figures.

Soleil and Tamasen seeking out images of under-represented figures at the de Young.

As a culmination of our work, the Greenies put together individual slide shows that talked about their focus color, and 3-4 different cultures’ ways of thinking of their color. Students also had to include a picture they personally took (not from the internet!) that represented the color’s symbolism. Students could take pictures of things out on the street, at a restaurant, from our museum collection, or even out of a book. This proved to be pretty tricky, especially for cultures that we do not see as frequently represented in our communities. However, the kids got really creative, and we ended up with some awesome and informative presentations!

Apollo shares his slides on the color yellow.