Tag Archives: installation art

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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Trying Something New With Fibers


Detail shot from a finished flag.

When tasked with designing an installation piece that students could produce for the library atrium at the Hannah Gibbons STEM School, I sought out the librarian’s advice first — after all, she was the person who would have to spend the most time with it! She mentioned that the light filtering in through the atrium could be too intense at times, and I realized that a fibers project was the right choice: not only would the fabric be beautifully illuminated by the light streaming in, but it would also serve to filter the light and reduce the afternoon glare.

Initially, I wanted to design a batik project for the 5th graders to complete. However, the more I researched it, the more I realized how prohibitive batik (the application of hot wax to resist a dye) would be in terms of cost, time, and safety. Struggling with this problem, I discovered a method by which we could work with pre-dyed fabrics then use a bleach discharge process to remove the color. The project as we ended up doing it still gave students an understanding of how resist methods work while having the added benefit of integrating new technology through the use of digitally plotted vinyl stencils.

Students began by researching the different organisms that make up the food web of the tropical rainforest. They worked cooperatively to decide who would draw each organism, then used iPads to find high quality reference images and wirelessly print them out. After they had drawn the images, I scanned and vectorized them, then scaled them up to the size of each flag and plotted them onto adhesive back vinyl. When the students adhered these vinyl stencils to their flags, they served as a resist against the sprayed bleach solution, allowing the vibrant colors of the flag to remain in the shape of their drawings while the sprayed pattern around it bleached out.

Blotting excess bleach from the flag.

Blotting excess bleach from the flag.

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Confidence Through Articulation

Read a summary of the Mound 7th grade LED Cloud Project here.


Ben Horvat exploring circuits with La’niya

During our residencies this semester in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Prek-8 STEM schools, PAA’s artist-educators together with our partner classroom teachers have been focusing on students being able to articulate what they have learned through project-based learning.  This may seem like an easy task, if the kids are engaged in the project they should be able to talk about what they learned.  However, that is often not the reality.  It reminds me of the process of learning a second language. Although you may have progressed to the level of being able to read it, write it, and pronounce some vocabulary words it does not necessarily mean you can speak the language fluently. As educators in the classroom, we have the advantage of witnessing first-hand our students’ demonstrated growth in their academic and artistic performance. Yet, that growth is not always apparent when third parties speak to the students about their experience – many students have a hard time verbalizing their experience. Being able to articulate a cohesive explanation of the process in which they engaged is an important 21st century skill that students need to develop for their future in college and beyond


Discussing the cloud armarture with students.

In the Mound 7th Grade LED Cloud residency Ben Horvat, my co-artist-educator (a.k.a. “MacGyver of Circuitry”), and I implemented various strategies to enhance our students’ understanding of the art vocabulary and technical practices they were learning with us in order to enable them to be able to confidently speak about their learning and understanding. Even though it is tempting with a large project to jump right into making to maximize time, we would start each class out with a review.  This was valuable reinforcement of the material, but it also let us know what level of understanding the students had reached and what concepts or terms they were still struggling with articulating.  Following the review, when students were building their sculptures, we would circulate the room asking students what they were doing and why.  We would actively try to engage them in a conversation about their process and how it connected to the content.  Having two artist-educators in the classroom made this much easier to accomplish.  One of our collaborating classroom teachers, Mr. Pearce, then reinforced this by having the students write out the steps of what they did that session with an explanation, giving the students an opportunity for reflection.  I felt this was an effective method and our students did a great job of presenting their project both at their school showcase and at the school district-wide STEM Fair.


7th grade students report their process at Mound STEM School Showcase.




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A Mound of Clouds

During my first residency with Progressive Arts Alliance during the fall 2014 semester, I had the pleasure to work alongside Miss Ainsley (“Paisley” according to some of the more affectionate 7th graders) Buckner and the Mound STEM School 7th graders to develop, make, and install LED lit “clouds”.

cloud first

The 7th graders formed small teams to accomplish this project. Each team had to construct an acrylic armature that would be covered with gauze and poly-fill (the stuff that is inside of pillows) and build two circuits of LED lights.

To build the clouds accurately, the students looked at and identified different types of cloud formations. They drafted what the armature might have to look like for each type of cloud. An armature is the framework on which a sculpture is molded. Ainsley and I emphasized the importance of planning before making.


Each group then began to build their specific clouds, if someone was having trouble, the groups would work together, or combine themselves to make the process smoother. For the most part, Ainsley led the construction of the armatures and showed the students the proper way to use hot glue and a heat gun. The heat gun was used to add curvature to acrylic rods, allowing more natural looking forms to be built.


While some groups worked on their armatures, I took the rest of the students and showed them how circuits work, and how to effectively build them. Each student had the opportunity to build their own circuit in series, which would later be attached to the interior of the cloud for illumination. Continue reading


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Shining a Light on Social Issues


A student demonstrates their light box projector.

During the fall 2014 semester, I worked with the 7th grade at Orchard STEM School.  This residency project was my first “solo” residency that I completed with Progressive Arts Alliance. It was a learning experience for both the students and myself. When developing this project I thought back to when I was in 7th grade. What were the worries or struggles that I dealt with? I couldn’t think of anything specific, but I knew that when I was twelve I began to express myself in many different ways. I found the music that I liked, I grew my hair out, and I actively made decisions between doing one thing or another. The theme was expression. Students at the end of middle school are beginning to find the things that make them, well, them. Often with this new found expression there are many problems, almost like riding a bike for the first time, or learning to swim. The learning curve is a bit steep and can be dangerous, but once you learn how to do these things effectively, they can literally save your life. The ability to effectively express yourself is no different, and can be used to help more than just one or two people.

I decided that each student would make a lightbox projector. These lightboxes, when illuminated, shine a super bright LED through a plexiglass etching of a collage that each student developed around a social issue of their choosing. Some students made imagery about bullying and ending violence, others questioned why we accept advertising but not graffiti, or why is there even such an idea as gender inequality.


Students’ etchings they created around social issues.


Each student crafted their own box. This included soldering a series circuit composed of a battery pack, an LED, a resistor, and a switch, which allow the light boxes to be turned on and off. They each assembled the components of the boxes together using wood glue and hot glue, making sure that the LED would project clearly through the etching in front of it. Each student also had the opportunity to manually etch a piece of real glass using acid.


Students collaborated to construct their boxes. The wood for the boxes was laser cut at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

Along with the making side of things, the 7th graders also did an amazing job at grasping the concepts of image, narrative, and installation art, and how they interrelate.


Examining a finished box in class.


In the second semester, there will be a day in which all of the lighboxes will be installed and the school will have the opportunity to see these expressions of the 7th graders and raise awareness around the social issues each student addressed.


Projecting our completed light boxes onto the classroom ceiling.


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The bigger picture

Triangles that were laser cut at [think]box at Case Western Reserve University. Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

Triangles that were laser cut at think[box] at Case Western Reserve University. Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

Jared Akerstrom, Ainsley Buckner, and I recently completed the installation of a large wall sculpture in the gymnasium/lunchroom/auditorium of Michael R. White STEM School located on East 92nd Street in Cleveland.  The wall sculpture is made of many multicolored equilateral triangles cut from standard poster board. The triangles are specially designed to interlock with each other and are assembled into larger shapes with common office staples.

Working on large-scale projects for PAA presents a set of very unique challenges. For a project to be successful it should achieve the following: the project should address some aspect of the CMSD standards-based curriculum, integrate art and science, stay within a budget, maintain a high degree of craftsmanship, and most importantly inspire students.  Additionally, under ideal circumstances, the project would also relate to the individual art practices of the artist-educators.

In the case of this large wall sculpture, the overall leadership and direction came from artist Jared Akerstrom.  He is formally trained as a sculptor and metal smith and has created numerous artworks across many genres all relating to the central theme of geometry.  My contribution to the project has been in the form of technical support.  I hold a staff position at think[box], an open access maker space located on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. think[box] allowed me to facilitate the fabrication of the over 4,000 triangles built into the project.  Ainsley Buckner, the program coordinator at PAA, provided the context for this immense project to take place.

On October 16, PAA held a family day at Michael R. White as a way of introducing ourselves to the school community.  The event hosted a few activities including pendulum painting, spirograph button making, silk-screening school spirit shirts, and a station where people could learn about various polyhedra and help us create the wall sculpture.  Our goal was to create an environment that gave people a sense of the entire scope of the project from start to finish.  There were distinct areas, each functioning as a specific step of the larger project.  One step was a folding and stapling section, another was for the construction of the larger pentagons, and a third was an area where Jared was fixing the pentagons to the wall.

A student and parent at Michael R. White STEM School work on assembling a polyhedron to help contribute to the work of the mural. Photo by Lauren Sammon.

A student and parent at Michael R. White STEM School work on assembling a polyhedron to help contribute to the sculpture installation. Photo by Lauren Sammon.

After the community day, the next two weeks were spent completing the folding, stapling and installing.  During installation, we interacted with the school community as they watched the sculpture take shape.  To my surprise the most frequent question we heard was: “What is it?”  The question suggests the universal difficulty people have with digesting abstract art.  We struggled to find an appropriate response to the question that both provided an entry point of interpretation of the piece as well as challenged the students’ pre-existing notions of what art can be. We settled on responding to their question with our own question of “What do you think it is?” to provide the students the opportunity to relate the sculpture to their lives or experiences.

Final mural installation at Michael R. White STEM School.  Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

Final sculpture installation at Michael R. White STEM School. Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

The final phase of the project is to connect the wall sculpture installation back to the classrooms of Michael R. White by developing correlations between it and the various class curricula. This should prove to be a relatively easy task as the project is filled with relatable topics such as geometry, math, color theory, and design.

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A Bit of Wonder


There is something wonderful about the natural world. I believe that all people have the ability to experience this wonder. As an artist, and as of recently, an artist educator, I know that this wonder is something people have long tried to capture through the creation of art. There are no bounds to this attempt to capture wonder. From the earliest drawings, to the most contemporary art, humans have been engrossed with bringing natural wonder to a place closer to home. Our project with the 7th graders at Mound STEM School is another attempt at bringing the natural world into a stable and controlled environment, to enhance their space, and to constantly exude some of the wonder that the outside world does. The students are creating ever changing man-made clouds. Through research, illusion, and of course, artistic creation, the students will pull visual elements directly from nature, and employ them in a large scale installation that will seemingly float, ever illuminated, in the lofty spaces at Mound. We hope that, and as it seems so far they are, the students will experience wonder not only in the final installation of these objects, but in the creation process. Whether this wonder comes from the “magic” of electrical circuits, or from re-purposing stuffing and medical gauze to create natural looking forms, the entirety of the project will give insight into how a little bit of creative thinking and hard collaborative work can transform a space into something wondrous.

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