The Magic of Context, Explained by Art

One of the first words I teach in my 7th grade English class is CONTEXT, because it’s pivotal to understanding what gives everything meaning — from literature to life.

Context example art: Frog cartoon in pond
A frog in the context of a pond is lovely…

What is Context?

The definition of the word “context” can be summarized as: all the stuff around something: time, place, surroundings, circumstances, etc. If you want to get your full body into comprehending context, do the “Context Dance” in which you point in all directions around you, singing, “All this is my current contexttttt!”

Why is Context Important?

Context changes EVERYTHING. On paper, the surroundings of a word in a sentence can utterly alter its meaning. This is why “context clues” are so important in helping infer the nuances of a definition. Meanwhile, in person, context can change the same object from delightful to disgusting. Let’s look…

Context illustration for teaching definition and sentences
A frog in the context of your bed is terrifying.

Context Examples!

Our first example features a jolly green frog. In the context featured in the first illustration from this article, the animal is sitting pretty on a flowered lily pad. Delightful! Unfortunately, change the context, and that frog becomes a terror. How would YOU react if you found him, as he is in my drawing above, with his slimy rear placed upon your pink pillow??? Ew!

More Context Sentences and Scenarios:

Our second example shows how a shift in context turns the same object from comfort to stressor: a simple ice cream cone! In my illustration below, a chap is taking a stroll on a spring day with three scoops of frozen deliciousness. Bliss…

Context illustration of ice cream cone in springtime
Ice cream is relaxing in springtime.

A Change of Context…

POOF! All of a sudden, imagine the context is flipped from a balmy environment to… an inferno of flames and scorching fire! With this altered context, the relaxed licking of the cone turns into a frenzy to salvage the frozen treat with chomps and gulps as it pours down. Argh!

Eating ice cream in hot flaming context: drawing
A flaming context makes frozen dessert stressful!

Words and Actions in Context

Now that you see how a simple frog or cone can completely change meaning with a shift in context, imagine what context can do to alter the impact of your own words and actions. It’s something to always be aware of.

Immediate Context vs. Broader

What entrance me to no end are the LAYERS of context that build up — from immediate to broader contexts. Each of those layers must be taken into account to understand the full meaning of whatever you’re looking at. Let’s examine the creation of this article as an example to show context layers, from zoomed in to zoomed out!

First Layer of Context: I drew a frog with a pond around her. That pond is the immediate context of the frog in the drawing I created.

Second Layer: Taking a step back from the frog, MY immediate context while drawing was that I was being jumped upon by my two young kids on the couch while we’re staying with family in Ohio. My cuties kept jostling my stylus on the screen, forcing me to repeatedly erase and re-draw lines. How does learning that context help you in terms of understanding this article and its strange and creative drawings?

Third Layer: The BROADER context is that I’m drawing and writing this in July 2020. (This will be the historical context for those reading this at a later date.) This date is significant because across the globe this year, we have all become intensely aware of how the changed context around us shifts every aspect of our lives. An action or utterance that would have been simple before is now either impossible or fraught.

Does that broader historical context illuminate why I chose to teach about the concept of context today???

Video: Context Illustration Process

Watch how my mind wandered, erased, and created!

Don’t Be Out of Context

As with our lessons on liminal spaces, foreshadowing, and juxtaposition, and foreshadowing, I hope you can see that these “dusty ELA vocabulary words” are actually highly relevant to our lives. When we forget about context or leave it out, meaning and purpose are lost.

Part of becoming a responsible adult is learning how to fit our actions to any given context — even if that context changes over time and we must adapt. For example, as we grow, we learn not to wear just our underwear in a public context, and we learn which words and actions might be disrespectful or even hurtful, given any given broader context.

Being mindful of context is not just important for our own decisions, but also to understand the world around us. For instance, the next time you read a book, watch a show, or look at a piece of art, really consider the context its creators were working with. How did their immediate and broader or historical contexts impact their choices in how and what they created? How might knowing that context influence your understanding of that piece? Often it’s worth the time to look up some of that background for a richer experience.

How might considering context even help relationships with those around you?

Do use the comment section below to share any stories or insights around how context has impacted your life, or to ask any questions! I look forward to hearing from you, and as always, invite your drawing requests.

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