H. John Thompson corralled students enrolled in his two introductory art courses, drawing and sculpture and introduced them to an intersection of art and history courtesy of the French warship La Gloire. The cruiser survived service in World War II perhaps in part to its zebra-striped hull - the antithesis our concept of camouflage.
"Dazzle camouflage confuses the eye so the enemy can't determine the ship's range, speed, and heading while masking the ship's profile so it can't be identified as civilian or military," he explained.
"Naturally, the technique was developed by artists and inspired many other artists." — H. John Thompson, art lecturer
Thompson, an art lecturer as well as the exhibitions and fabrication studio coordinator at Abington, used the concept to teach specific techniques as well as broader concepts that form the bedrock of an art practice.
Excitement mixes with trepidation as students prepare to launch La Gloire on the campus pond - much to the chagrin of the resident ducks.
The sculpture students designed and constructed a 10-foot replica of the ship in cardboard, transforming a common, disposable material into a substantial sculptural object. They developed a substructure as the foundation and made and attached cardboard panels to cover it, creating three-dimensional volume.
Through the assignment, Thompson had a broader goal in mind.
"In this way, students understand a fundamental design process from conception, to diagram, to structural construction, to surface completion." — John Thompson
Drawing students managed the part two of the project, designing and painting the dazzle camouflage. Thompson urged them to experiment with optical illusion by using line variety and perspective.
"By creating gray areas of perceived shadow and varying the thickness of the black lines and their direction, students came to understand how linear perspective creates the illusion of three-dimensional form on a flat surface," he explained.
The French warship La Gloire decked in its trademark dazzle camouflage.
Thompson's band of shipbuilders/artists/designers launched La Gloire Abington on the iconic campus pond. As it sailed past the mildly irritated ducks that call the pond home, the students cheered. Thompson, however, seemed quietly thrilled that a little razzle dazzle imparted important lessons.
"The intention was to create an experience that encourages students to consider the process of creating a work of art as well as the life a work may have once it's completed, and that one's experience with art can happen anywhere." — John Thompson
After weeks of collaboration, sculpture and drawing students celebrate the successful voyage of La Gloire. It's currently in dry dock in the art studio.
Dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle or dazzle painting, was a family of ship camouflage used extensively in World War I and to a lesser extent in World War II and afterward. It consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other.
The concept was credited to artist Norman Wilkinson, but Picasso claimed the Cubists invented dazzle. Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the camouflaging of over 2,000 ships during World War I, painted a series of canvases of dazzle ships after the war.