As a Matter of State: Solid, Liquid and Gas Decoupage Dioramas

During my recent residency at Paul L. Dunbar Arts Academy, 2nd and 3rd grade scholars engaged in  many conversations and much investigation into matter’s various states. After their investigations, scholars decided to build three-dimensional decoupaged dioramas to demonstrate their understanding. The class was divided into three groups: solid, liquid, and gas. Students brainstormed ideas within their categories and then ultimately selected their favorite liquid, solid, or gas to create a three-dimensional diorama. Some ideas were difficult to categorize, resulting in robust classroom discussion. For instance, oatmeal. Is it a solid or a liquid? And then there was basketball. Is it a solid filled with gas? How about ice? Is ice a liquid frozen into a solid state? The states of matter discussions, and the excitement for making a three-dimensional dioramas of their item generated a lot of enthusiasm.

With an idea in hand, students sketched in their diorama planners making sure they considered the background, middle ground, and foreground for their object’s environment. They drew their objects as the main figure within the space of their 3-dimensional dioramas.

hot air balloon plan

Hot Air Balloon Plan and Decoupaged Diorama.

Next was the most unexpectedly difficult portion of the project: tearing the tissue paper into pieces [without shredding, wadding, or other frustrated efforts]. This fine motor skill proved far more challenging for the students than anticipated by myself or the teacher. The victory of finally getting all five interior surfaces of the diorama boxes covered in thin layers of tissue was a major feat!

The figures within the dioramas were created on tabbed card stock, so they could stand and or hang from the space as desired. The students excelled at this construction method quickly after the greater learning curve of the technique of decoupage had been mastered. As we placed and adhered the finished objects into their created spaces, students were alit with accomplishment and the room was filled with the fervor of their excitement and pride.

bricks diorama

Student showcases her solid state of matter diorama; a brick wall.

water diorama

Student showcases her water state of matter diorama; water.

wind diorama

Student showcases her gas state of matter diorama; a gust of wind.

Upon reflection, it continues to amaze me at how profoundly important even these seemingly simpler residency projects are. Students initially struggled at every technical interchange of the process: in creating small pieces of tissue paper, applying the right amount of adhesive, and in covering the surfaces with flat but overlapping thin layers. These struggles, however, paved the way for hands-on learning that was so rich, and ultimately provided the reward of successful projects. Seeing and coaching the students as they pushed through these challenges, turned out to be the most memorable aspect of this residency.

orange balloom diorama

Student showcases his gas and solid state of matter diorama; a balloon filled with helium.

Students were absolutely beside themselves with pride, standing next to their brightly decoupaged boxes with wide smiles and sticky hands.

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Printing the Planets

The fifth graders at Hannah Gibbons were studying the planets of our solar system in their science curriculum. They had lots of questions. What colors are the planets? What gives the planets their color? What are the surfaces of the planets like?

We projected the various planets on the big screen and it almost felt like we were in the planetarium. For the majority of the students in the class, this was the first time they had seen large full color and up close images of the planets. Awestruck is a great way to describe their reactions.

The collagraph plate seemed the perfect printmaking partner for their artistic investigations. We set out together to create collagraph plates of each of the planets that we printed in limited editions. The students became expert printers and grew quite skilled at operating the etching press as they cranked out their small stack of prints. We also tipped our best prints into a handful of collaborative artist books showcasing one of each planet in our solar system.

Collagraph plate, inked and ready to run through the press.

Students asked and answered their planetary questions in many formats within their field journals. These journals recorded their research, and included further investigations of the textural surfaces and appearances of their selected planet with rubbings, collages, and proof prints in preparation for creating their collagraph plates.

Planetary textural rubbing with the beginnings of watercolor study.

Field Journals

Students showcase their textural studies within their field journals.

Sure, there was a little snickering with an occasional Martian and Uranus joke, but there was a lot more serious inquiry and investigation.

Team Mars, also known as our Martian Men, with their first proof prints of Mars.

Armed with their field journals, which were absolutely packed with their findings, students mined their new understandings to create a collagraph printing plate of their planet. We made test plates of nearly ten different texture gels so that the individual planetary student groups could determine which acrylic gels they would use to create their planet and showcase its unique and specific surface. Students cut their circular planet plates, including rings for several of them, out of thin foam core, and built up their textural surface with various acrylic gels including: sand, pumice, fibers, and glass beads.

Students made proof prints of their planet collagraph plates with a single primary color of their planet to get their first textural read of their collagraphs. This is the magic I most enjoy in my printmaking residencies. We’ve spent weeks together, absolutely up to our eyeballs in both investigations and making, yet when students lift their first print off of their plate that they both created and inked, their eyes alight with disbelief. The magic of printmaking!

Team Earth with their printed edition.

After their first impression has been made, students began blended color relief rolls for their small editions. Lastly, they printed their best prints on rice paper to be collaged into our collaborative books.

Planet Printing

The printing process.

The results? They were out of this world!

Team Mercury, also known as The Mercury Girls, showcasing their prints.

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Telling the Story of our Landscape with the Makey Makey and Scratch


Mound STEM School 4th grader working on coding his Scratch animation.

The 4th graders at Mound STEM School in Cleveland were already well-versed in landforms when I began my residency this past fall semester. Their teachers had done an excellent job teaching the students all about weathering, erosion, and the formation of landforms. What I found lacking in this class was the ability to visualize these landforms. They could tell me how a valley or a glacier was created, but they could not tell me what said valley or glacier looked like. They could describe the weather associated with these landforms, but not the visuals of them. This is one of those key factors missing from our education system: the ability to let students experience these realities first-hand. Although we cannot take the students to the Grand Canyon or to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains, we can show YouTube videos, paintings and images to give our students a glimpse of these environments.

It took students some time to realize their visions for their Scratch animations they made as part of my residency work. The animations included drawn imagery sourced from discovered images and videos research. Once they had conquered the imagery, the students incorporated facts about their landforms to educate other students and other viewers. We then used conductive materials such as graphite, aluminum foil, and copper tape to create conductive drawings, which worked along with the Makey Makeys to trigger the Scratch projects. The conductive drawings were a result of experiments completed by the students, during which they tested various materials to find what the most conductive materials were to use for their artworks.

Experimenting with conductive materials and the Makey-Makey.

Experimenting with conductive materials and the Makey Makey.

The results of combining these various materials and methods was a (surprisingly) cohesive and exciting project. The students learned the basics of coding, digital painting, physical drawing, and conductivity, along with their landform curriculum. This was a very challenging residency to accomplish, and the results were far from perfect. I would love to do this residency again, with slight adjustments to streamline the process. The students were very proud of their work, and their projects can be viewed here. I enjoyed my time with the 4th graders at Mound STEM, and I look forward to seeing what these enthusiastic learners create next.

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Bringing Lines to Life with Light

There’s something completely captivating about illuminating a small light by completing a simple circuit. Something akin to creating fire. Suddenly, by mastering the positive and negative connections to the battery source and completing the loop of a simple circuit, you have participated in something both so profoundly simple, and yet mysteriously complex. Like magic, it seems simultaneously believable and unbelievable. This simple magic will be the core of a forthcoming book residency with 4th graders from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. We’ll be experimenting with Chibitronics LED stickers, conductive copper foil tape, and cell batteries.


Completed simple circuit with copper foil tape, LED sticker, and cell battery.

In merging the science content of circuits and the art content of creating illuminated images for our books, students will engage in an investigation of understanding line. Through the residencies, we’ll ponder what is created by the line. The driving questions of engagement will center on the following inquiry:

What is a line?
How can we use the line to both draw and illuminate our drawing?

The content of each of the book projects within the residencies will vary, contemplating the diverse range of potential of the drawn line. Beneath the drawings created for the book pages, students will draw additional lines on a separate and hidden page beneath the illustrations with the copper foil tape, making correct all the connections to the positive and negative ends of the battery source, therefore creating a smooth path for the electrons to flow, and illuminate tiny LED lights. The lights will illuminate various and specific aspects of their illustrations from below.

Illuminated Constellation

Student drawing of the constellation of Leo, and completed parallel circuit beneath.

My personal investigations have revealed that one of my biggest challenges will be honing the craft and application of the copper tape. Being a very thin foil weight, it is super easily to crinkle and tear — most especially when making bends and corner turns, which will be necessary for the circuits within the book. Considering line, I think this challenge poses a terrific solution to really invest time into exploring line-making with various foil tapes, where we can build craft through experience as well as test out conductivity of a variety of materials and methods.

Eiffel Tower Drawing Illuminated

Parallel circuit teaching example; an illuminated Eiffel Tower.

I think of the art challenge presented much like Harold and the Purple Crayon, where we can bring lines to life — both through drawing and illumination. Through the opportunity to engage with circuits, I hope the investigation of line becomes a memorable experience for the students who will be able to envision themselves as creators of content, with wide open imaginations about the potential of both drawing and bookmaking, electricity, and beyond.


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Screen Printing and Quilting: Creating Magic in the Classroom

mrw_printingOne of the most rewarding aspects of teaching I have found is witnessing the literal “light bulb” moment in the arts-integrated classroom. The third graders at Michael R. White STEM I worked with during the fall 2015 semester were certainly enthusiastic learners, but the concepts of screen printing and printmaking were totally foreign to them. The assignment was to design and draw a life-cycle, which they would then screen print onto a square of canvas. These squares would come together to create a quilt, depicting life-cycles found in our natural world. They were excited about the project, but it was the physical act of screen printing that made students’ eyes truly light up around me. It was like magic for them, seeing their drawings burned onto screens, and then printed on canvas. The students loved moving the ink across the screen with the squeegee, watching it seep into the mesh and onto the fabric. A student who was particularly restless, a self-proclaimed “trouble maker,” became entranced with the printing process. By the end of our first screening session, she was reminding students to “flood their screen,” and demonstrating the proper way to hold a squeegee.


Another “Aha!” moment occurred when we began the second half of our project: sewing. Students were finding personal connections within this project from the beginning; when we looked at pictures of historic quilts, students were exclaiming “my grandmother makes those!” or “we have one at home!” Many of these students had helped their relatives with quilting and sewing in the past, and were very intent on creating patterns with a plastic needle and yarn. As a class, they sewed each other’s squares, working together towards their goal.

The history of quilts comes from bringing together different elements to create a single collaborative blanket, something warm and familiar, something steeped in history and personality. The third graders at Michael R. White took this opportunity to create something educational that also represented each of them as individuals, and as a class. The quilt will be installed in the school during the second semester, and will remain there long after these students have graduated; a little piece of history.

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Interactive & Illustrative: Sculptures that Spin


I have found that interactive artworks are conducive to a kinesthetic learning environment; as a student, I learned through research and hands-on activities. As an artist, I learn through experimenting and peer critique. The third graders at Mound STEM School in Cleveland, Ohio served as both the students and the artists in our Fall 2015  residency. The students created three-dimensional interactive sculptures, using components of illustration to communicate life cycles of different animals. The sculptures were designed to appear as the set of a play, with a stage set to showcase the illustrations. The illustrations themselves sit upon a wheel, which is spun by the viewer to experience each particular phase of a life cycle.

The words “illustration” and “drawing” were absolutely terrifying to the students when I first introduced our project. “But what if I can’t draw?! I can’t draw anything!” resounded throughout the classroom. Yet over the next month or so, I witnessed the confidence levels rising as we researched and planned our drawings, practicing basic shapes and patterns, and discussing color theory. The class spent one class creating still-life drawings from flower arrangements; I have never seen a class so young so intent on observing their subject. At the conclusion of the class, the students lined up for a “gallery walk.” We walked around the classroom looking at everyone’s drawings, the students quiet and concentrated. When we sat down to discuss the work, I was astounded to hear a student say, “Izzie’s composition is really nice, I like hers a lot.” I have never heard a student say the word “composition” before without first commanding them, as I did at the beginning of the session: “repeat after me guys, a composition is how you arrange an image.”

When I was first designing this residency, a friend told me I was “crazy” to expect the level of attention needed for successful observation drawing from 3rd graders. I was thrilled with the results of their drawings, and the attention to detail came through in their final sculptures. Every student put time and effort into their works, and the result was phenomenal. I will be doing a similar residency this upcoming 2016 semester with the third graders at Michael R. White STEM and Hannah Gibbons, both schools in Cleveland. The subject matter will be sustainable energy as opposed to life-cycles, and I am looking forward to seeing the results of this residency within a completely different context.

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The Force and Motion of Life

As an Artist Educator, my goal is to deepen the learning experience for students and educators through engaging and innovative project-based learning residencies. In these residencies the scholars participate in hands-on learning experiences that provide opportunities to learn and practice transferable skills. They develop and nurture critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills. These skills not only enhance comprehension of the content from their academic classes, but they also apply to their lives outside the classroom.

Design plans for a chain reaction sculpture.

This fall, PAA organized a kinetic sculpture residency hosted at think[box], Case Western Reserve University’s innovation center.  The goal of this collaboration was to integrate the middle school science curriculum content standard into an experiential learning workshop, including content focused on force and motion. Five schools participated, serving approximately 150 students over a one week intensive residency.  Each scholar participated for two full school days in designing and building chain reaction kinetic sculptures at think[box].  Experiential learning opportunities like this provide avenues for students to explore force and motion in a hands-on way; enhancing their ability to incorporate theory into real life examples. Students worked in teams to collaboratively plan out their design based on the materials provided, thinking critically about the relationship between the material and the science.  They continually learned from their mistakes and tested out new methods and materials to come up with creative solutions.

Construction phase

Construction phase at the think[box].

These innovative residencies also provided invaluable teachable moments. I observed instances where the students referenced their own perceived abilities related to force and motion. Many students struggled with their self confidence in their ability to build a working chain reaction sculpture. In particular, one student struggled to recognize her own potential.  At the beginning, she expressed to me that she identified as being “stupid.”  I explained to her that what we are capable of is often determined by our mindset.  With coaching and encouragement she built up the self-esteem to participate in the project. Metaphorically, she is a ball at the top of a ramp filled with potential energy and the support we provide as instructors is the gravitational force that allows the ball to roll down the ramp and change into kinetic energy.  The hands-on learning of force, motion, and chain reaction became a relevant metaphor for her own lack of self-confidence transforming into kinetic energy.

Completed kinetic sculpture

Completed kinetic sculpture

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Revisiting and Refining

This semester I had the opportunity to revisit the cloud project that fellow Artist-Educator Ainsley Buckner and I piloted last year.  The LED cloud residencies have been one of our most successful projects. In fact, the cloud project has been so successful that Progressive Arts Alliance will be traveling to the SXSWedu conference to exhibit and build clouds with conference goers.

Student at Mound STEM school building an armature.

Student at Mound STEM School building an armature.

Student Soldering a Neopixel LED light.

Student soldering a Neopixel LED light.


John Marshall students covering cloud armature to support cotton exterior.

This semester we refined our project objectives which led to the use of new materials and the opportunity to engage more students in the work.

First, we decided that the groups of students would focus on making three different types of clouds, cumulus, stratus, or cirrus, where as last year’s groups focused primarily on creating cumulus clouds. We also decided that instead of using slow rotating RGB and standard white LEDs, we used Adafruit’s Neopixels with Through-Hole connectors which made for a different soldering process, allowing me to cover both series and parallel circuits and how they can work together.

Following are some of my reflections on what went well and what could be improved.

What went well:

Each school (Mound STEM School, Hannah Gibbons STEM School, and John Marshall School of Information Technology) completed several clouds. This might sound like a simple objective, but it can be a tall order to have groups of students building sculptural forms, soldering LED lights, and combining the two into a functioning and stable sculptural object in only ten class periods.

The schools each completed clouds of several different types. Last time, most clouds ended up resembling cumulus clouds. This time around, each school has distinctly different clouds that still complement each other aesthetically.

The clouds are now powered by a wall outlet and an Arduino. The previous versions of the clouds were battery-powered which are expensive to replace and a little more unwieldy. The wall power ultimately cuts down on cost and overall hassle.

As mentioned above, an Arduino now powers the lights in the clouds. This allows us to make the lights actually look like lightning, and in the future if we choose, we could add sound or any other features, without having to start the project over. Click below to see a video of the Arduino-powered cloud:

What could be refined in the future:

As I mentioned earlier, it is hard to get all that we’d like done in ten sessions. Keeping this in mind, I think that finding ways to have students work on a project outside of PAA being there could be beneficial in several ways:

  1. It would give more responsibility and ownership of the project to the students.
  2. Provide an opportunity for classroom teachers to be just as involved in the project, better preparing them help in future projects or more elaborate/extended projects.
  3.  It would allow more time for scaffolding the project. Currently students haven’t had the opportunity to actually install the clouds with the PAA team. I feel like this is a large disconnect between the completion of the objects, and the overall goal of a public installation piece, which I think is an important part of the artistic process.

The individually addressable RGB LEDs that we chose for this project were difficult to work with.  Due to excessive wear and tear, the pins were more likely to snap off, and the pixels themselves can blow or not work properly if any large number of things goes wrong. In the future, I’d like to experiment with discovering a more fluid method of soldering the lights together to improve efficiency.

This project is always changing and moving. There are never any two classes that are the same, and that’s a good thing. It just means that the Artist-Educators need to be prepared with multiple solutions to multiple problems that could arise in any combination. The ultimate goal is to prepare students to be able to work through the steps of the design process enabling them to identify and solve a wide variety of challenges.

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Differentiating Instruction Within Arts-Integration

One of the most difficult aspects of my job as an artist-educator is designing and implementing rigorous residencies that constructively challenge all students involved, knowing that they start at a wide variety of academic and artistic skill levels. Utilizing a variety of differentiated instruction techniques has allowed the residencies that I have taught to meet the individual needs of my students.Differentiated_1000x668

I frequently encourage collaborative learning by placing students in mixed-ability groups. Students who struggle gain assistance from other students and higher achieving students receive peer modeling opportunities. I saw the benefits of this during this semester when I was teaching a book-making residency based on the transfer of energy from the sun to living things. After I provided classroom instruction, students helped each other break images of animals into geometric shapes in order to more easily draw them. I frequently heard students complimenting each other and requesting specific assistance based on their needs. Mixed-ability groups were also successful this semester when I taught video production to a combined group of second graders and older special education students. These social dynamics prevented bullying and provided opportunities for all students to grow.

Sometimes the needs of students aren’t as clear. I’ve learned to quickly and instinctively adapt instruction when students are stuck, but I’m beginning to find ways to predict these moments and integrate differentiated approaches into my lesson planning. This past semester I had a first grade residency during which the students needed to copy a sentence from the whiteboard onto an overhead transparency. This was not an easy task for some of the students on IEPs. I needed to scaffold the activity  in a way that didn’t draw attention to those who were struggling. I copied the sentence on a paper and placed it under the plastic for some students to trace, I wrote the first letter of each work for some students as a guide and some students continued to write their sentence independently. After addressing this challenge in the first class, I was able seek guidance from the classroom teachers of subsequent classes so that I was able to provide the proper guidance for each student.

As we transition from the fall to spring semester, I’m looking forward to digging into additional research on differentiated instruction and implementing more best practice techniques into my arts-integration residencies. I am most excited about applying this to the use of technology in the classroom.

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Experience to Execution

Developing a new project is challenging. It is one thing for an artist to develop their own work, their own process and own methodologies.  It is another type of challenge to apply those processes and methods to arts integration projects. While developing a residency for 5th graders at Michael R. White STEM School, I drew upon a past experience I had while developing my own artistic work. The residency’s activities consisted of the students first drawing parts of a food web, then making transfer drawings, arranging and testing gears, making series and parallel circuits, and eventually creating connections with gears to light up (literally) the different parts of their food web.

Working on Circuit

Constructing a Circuit

Completed Circuit

Completed Circuit

Drawing has been one of my passions since I could physically pick up a pencil, crayon, or marker; I didn’t really have a preference when I was younger. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours drawing in my life. If you ask me to draw something, I can probably whip up a fairly accurate sketch in just a few minutes. Throughout most of my life I have had the mindset that there is one proper way to draw. The “traditional way,” as some might refer to, is drawing from life, rendering objects and forms through a push and pull with materials and the media. Then one day I got frustrated. I couldn’t figure out how to draw something. The form eluded me and through many, many attempts I simply couldn’t get it to look like I wanted. After about an hour of just staring at my paper fighting with myself internally, I walked out of my school studio and down the stairs to the checkout area. I checked out a projector and opened up Photoshop. Hours of frustration melted away, and I got the form I was looking for faster than I could have imagined. Photoshop enabled me to edit pre-existing images as source material to create the new image I had envisioned. I have been tracing, copying, and editing ever since.

This particular experience has shown me that different methods of making can be used to complement each other. Technology and traditional drawing do not have to be independent disciplines. I have also found that the right way to do something is not predetermined, but must be figured out through experience and trial and error.  Making drawing fun and empowering for students can be a challenge. By using my previous experiences as an artist to shape and develop my methods to teach drawing, I  have been pleased to observe that students are able to find a balance between rigorous skill building and achievement.

My concept and final creation for “Constellation,” a wearable I created in 2014.

The technical skills I’ve developed in 3D modeling and rendering, animationphotographic manipulation, and more have enhanced my traditional drawing abilities. More recently, I’ve developed  a skill set in circuitry that has allowed me to take my drawing and sculptural work to a new level much as I did previously with other technical tools. This has allowed me to design and implement learning experiences for students that sit outside of art making in the “traditional” sense, helping students have access to materials and methods they may not have otherwise.

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