Cal Create Lesson 4: Sculpture

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Introduction 
Not all of our lessons have to be two-dimensional. Found object sculpture gets your students to “tinker” with discarded small objects until visual ideas arise. You play the role of facilitator and cutting expert. Artists Louise Nevelson and Jerry R Barrish have each made a career out of creating sculpture with found objects.

Photo of an adult holding a 24" long sculpture

This sculpture was made entirely with taped parts, proving cutting tools are not necessary.

Duration for Adults: Several sessions (2-4), depending on available time.
Adult Objectives: Complete a recognizable sculpture with found objects.

Duration for Teens: Two to six sessions, depending on the degree of “finish” the students want.
Teen Objectives: Complete a recognizable sculpture with found objects.

Duration for Children: At minimum, needs to last three to six sessions.
Child Objectives: Complete a recognizable sculpture with found objects.

General Preparation
Prototype: The success of sculpture with found objects depends on how much you help your students see the possibilities of the medium. In addition to several prototypes, you should bring books and images of sculptures done by the age group you are teaching.

For the lesson itself: Pliers, glue guns, masking or painter’s tape, small pieces of plastic (broken toys are ideal), pieces of EVA foam, twigs, florist wire, cardboard, foam board, small plastic and paper boxes, easter eggs, ping pong balls, small cylindrical containers, small pieces of wood, string, rubber bands, metal nuts, buttons, pom poms, toilet paper rolls and tongue depressors.

To finish the sculptures you can use spray paint or papier maché and tempera paint.

Materials Prep
Cover all tables and ensure that you have enough outlets for the glue guns (if you are using them). Use various cardboard boxes to make the sculpture pieces available at several stations, and plastic containers for the smaller parts. Instead of grouping materials by type, make sure you have enough of every kind at each station. Students cutting wire must use googles.

Children under fourth grade attach their pieces with tape, while older children and adults may use a hot glue gun to attach parts. To prevent conflicts, each child must have their own roll of tape. Kindergarteners can attach tape but have a hard time cutting it directly off the roll. Either precut all pieces of tape, use the tadpole tape dispenser, or make sure another adult can be around to help with this.

Photo of a 5th grader at a table with her sculpture.

A student shows her alebrije at the local library.

Cut large parts into smaller parts, so that the need to cut is eliminated or at least minimized for all age groups. Not only is it difficult to supervise multiple teens cutting, it is expensive (and wrong) to provide each one with a box cutter. Young students who wish to cut something can come to you for assistance. Carry your cutting tools with you, so that children are never alone near them.

Procedure for Children
Show your prototypes and pass them around, but also spend as much time as you can spare talking with the kids about the prototypes, showing images of sculptures, and if possible, showing books that include images of “sculptures with found objects.” This is very important, because most of your students will not imagine what’s possible until they are visually stimulated.

At this age, students don’t plan much and in fact, for this sculpture lesson, the more they are able to tinker the better. Allotting time to manipulate 3D objects into a sculpture is the best thing you can do for a young student. After they have made their first sculpture, you may give them some paper and ask them to plan the next one. The experience they had will guide their drawings and this context will make planning easier.

Divide the room into stations:

  • Choosing Station, where students can take the time hunting for and picking parts for their sculpture
  • Fastening Station, where students can tie, rubber band or tape parts together
  • Gluing Station, where students can use a glue gun to permanently attach a part
  • Finishing Station, where students choose small parts for the details in their sculptures
  • You may ask, “Why not a Painting Station?” Paint peels off most plastics. For paint to stay you’d need to paper maché the sculpture or spray-paint it.

If you have more than ten students you can have more than one of these stations. Lay down a few simple ground rules for your stations:

  1. Walk everywhere
  2. Use an inside voice
  3. Ask before you borrow
  4. No more than five students at the gluing station
  5. Share your tools
Photo of a few sculptures are on display behind a glass.

These sculptures were painted with tempera.

Finishing a sculpture might be difficult for some kids because they will be totally absorbed in the creative process, so you will need to agree on a signal that will let them know you are going to make a coupe of announcements, the announcements being the amount of time that’s left.

Procedure for Teens and Adults
Here too, it’s all about how much effort you place in introducing the concept of sculpture with discarded materials. The more you sound like you have a passion for it, the more intrigued they will be. The more images they see, the safer they will feel in trying it out. And the more prototypes you pass around, the more they will understand that this is not about creating a “pretty” product.

Teens and adults also benefit from stations because most enjoy being able to work at their own pace, creating their own design. Even though this is a loosely structured lesson and your students are older, placing a big cardboard box full of materials in the middle of the room can lead to friction or chaos. Take the time to find appropriate containers for each table (big boxes that stack) and bring them with you since the site won’t have them. For this lesson, the key to peace is to decentralize everything. Place a variety of materials at each table, along with tools, fasteners and a couple of glue guns (if there are outlets nearby).

At each middle school program, find out the rules about cutting tools at the site where you have been assigned. Can teenaged students use wire cutters? How about pliers? Dollar stores sell a mini-saw that is the perfect tool to cut balsa wood and foam board, but some sites do not allow them.

It will be hard to stop them so give them plenty of warning before their time is up.

Discussion for Children
Visual Thinking Strategies is an inquiry-based teaching method created by cognitive psychologist Abigail House and museum educator Philip Yenawine.  It is the leading method used to discuss art in museums across this country and it is also used in many private schools. After giving the students a chance to look at the art, a teacher will train the children in this protocol by showing a large image and asking questions. A good summary of the method can be found here. 

The reason I bring up VTS is that very often, when we do manage to save some time for a discussion of the children’s work, we are aware that the conversation could be deeper but we lack the skills to conduct a child-centered discussion that goes beyond the “so what.” From VTS, I have learned to

  • Ask three basic questions: What’s going on in this picture; what do you see that makes you say that; what more can we find?
  • Ask various types of follow-up questions to help the children find evidence for what they see
  • Prepare students to write about their art experiences
  • Help students switch to a hypothesis-claim-evidence mode
  • Summarize what my students have said

For this lesson, save a few more minutes so you can comfortably try using the three basic questions from VTS to help your young students discuss the sculptures made by their peers.

Photo of buildings made with styrofoam, tape and cardboard

Students used discarded materials to build this city

Discussion For Teens
Please read about Visual Thinking Strategies, the inquiry-based teaching method in the section above. While you can use this exact same approach with teens, I would suggest a variation, which is to have teens individually write what they notice about each sculpture, and then write one question they have for the maker. They have to write their names on their card. You read each post-it or card and ask follow-up questions to those observations, then the student who made the sculpture answers the question, for as long as the question is not evaluative (i.e. “what made you turn its head in that funny way?”)

Discussion With Adults
Discussions such as the ones generated by the VTS method might give some adults the impression they are on the “hot seat,”  but you could teach them valuable Visual Thinking Strategies by introducing work made by others (for example, an artist off the web) after they have had the experience of creating a sculpture. In this way their observations will be richer because they have some context to guide their thoughts.