Tag Archives: LED

Illuminated Artist Books: Robots

After laying down seemingly miles of copper tape–practicing complicated bends and turns–the fourth graders at Hannah Gibbons were ready to see if their skills could be applied to complete circuits and illuminate tiny LED lights. They masterfully wired a simple circuit, and celebrated 100% success as a class on their first try, each of them rewarded with the soft glow of a single LED light. Eager to master multiple lights, they dove into their parallel circuits with equal success and much enthusiasm.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Next up, we’d really investigate the line as well as our understanding of circuits. [Remember our Essential Questions regarding the line in this semester’s artist book residencies incorporating circuits and LED lights] Students each created a unique drawing of a robot that they invented through a creative writing exercise. With their completed drawings, students identified several areas where lights could enhance their robot illustrations; think eyes, antennas, hearts, and laser hands. The robot drawings were completed on the outside surface of a folded lift-the-flap structure to allow for the creation of parallel circuits beneath the illustrations.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Students plotted out the placement of their lights, and got to work designing and creating their custom parallel circuits. This was a huge challenge, and as a result offered the greatest reward. After weeks of practice, students adapted and translated their understanding of circuits into a line drawing of positive and negative parallel but never touching tracks looping back to the power source to illuminate the lights beneath their illustrations. There was an excitement of challenge, mixed with a little head-scratching, many super tight turns with copper tape, and a few frustrated re-starts.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

And then, it was absolute magic. Every student mastered a unique parallel circuit for their book spread, and then folded down their robot drawing to lay flat over the lights. “Oooh”s and “Aaah”s sounded out in a cacophony as students celebrated in both amazement and disbelief of how their robots lit up exactly where they had hoped; their smiles as bright as their lights!

See the students in action in their classroom by watching the YouTube video below:

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Illuminated Artist Books: Plugged In

With the 4th graders at Mound Elementary School, we started off our illuminated artist book residency with discussions and experiments focusing on our understanding of the line. We laid down inches and miles of copper tape for our material practice worksheets, then we moved on to create a simple and a parallel circuit. We discussed the importance of continuous lines and loops, and connectivity.

Brainstorming Illustrations

Discussing parallel circuits with students.

We discussed and expounded upon our essential questions that are navigating our Illuminated Artist Book Circuit investigations:

What is a line?

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

Charged with all of this conversation about line, coupled with a good foundation of craft, as well as increased electrical understanding, we shifted our focus to discussions of technology for this residency. Specifically, to the lines of wires, cords, and plugs. We discussed the shifting ground of technology, and questioned what is now wireless, what still plugs in, and how we still have wires and chargers that plug in to recharge? Investigating the electronics of our every day experiences, each student determined an object that requires electricity to operate at some capacity for their individual contribution to the collaborative book.

Class Discussion

Class discussion of electronics.

We decided to title the book “Plugged In” employing a pun about being in touch and engaged with the current time, while taking all of our electric illustrations a note back in time by plugging them all in with lines that tethered ankle of our illustrations together. We were inspired by the illustrative style of the picture book Follow the Line.

While students brainstormed their individual electronic illustration ideas, we spent an afternoon honing our line drawing approaches and our understanding of connected drawings by creating some fabulously funny exquisite corps drawings. Exquisite Corpse is a drawing technique first employed by the Surrealists; see some examples right here.

We created class lists of our individual electronic items, making sure we had no repeats, and students got to work with their lines creating their plugged in drawings, and making them connect to the page prior and the page following.

Student Illustration

Student with completed illustration.

Next, students determined where they would place lights, and what color they desired for the lights in the various locations. Students made notes, and then transferred down the placement of their lights beneath their illustrations.

Circuit Light Planning

Student with LED light planning stencil.

Copper Tape Circuit

Student laying down copper tape for his parallel circuit.

Mapping out their unique parallel circuits to accommodate their plans was the biggest challenge in this residency, so their success there also reaped the biggest reward in earning their determined sense of accomplishment.

Students Working Together

Students working together on copper tape techniques for their parallel circuits.

For me, however, nothing beats the moment — that flicker of the quickest second in time — when student faces light up with sheer amazement in the success of their unique parallel circuits working!

Moment of Illumination

First excited moment of circuit illumination!

Then, as they fold down their illustration over top, and seemingly magically those brightly colored lights illuminate their illustrations.

Student with illuminated illustration

Student with illuminated illustration 2

Students with illuminated illustrations

Student with illuminated illustration 3

Those smiles? They are absolutely priceless, and positively beaming with the pride of their achievement.

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Illuminated Artist Books: Created Constellations

During my illuminated book residency at Paul L. Dunbar Arts Enrichment Academy, 4th graders were interested in the stories of the sky. Together, we looked at several constellations, the legends behind them, and the various ways in which they are mapped and drawn. Students created their own star stories, and then designed constellations to illustrate their creative writing. After much practice with copper tape techniques, and wiring successful simple and parallel circuits, students were ready to dive into their own illuminated constellations for the collaborative class book.

Playing again with line, we returned to our essential questions that are navigating our Illuminated Artist Book Circuit investigations:

What is a line?

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

We took our inquiry of line discussions in the direction of connecting-the-dots. We discussed the constellation schematic drawings that chart out our star-filled skies with points and lines. The congruency to connecting our LED lights beneath our constellation illustrations was perfectly paired to these discussions, as our parallel circuits became quite constellation-like themselves.

Circuit Planning

Circuit planning with students.

Though several of the circuits took on a similar path as the overlaid illustrations, many circuits took an entirely different connection route as students worked out the logistics of space and connection for their parallel tracks of copper tape.

Constellation Book

Student showcasing the cover to the collaborative constellation book.

Students drew their constellation illustrations with gold pens on navy blue cardstock. They indicated the major stars of their constellations with punched holes backed with yellow translucent vellum which provided a tiny window for the lights to glow through from beneath.

Constellation Circuits

Students illuminating their parallel circuits under their constellation illustrations.

After the light locations were determined, students designed and wired custom parallel circuits to compliment their constellations and illuminate three or four LED lights, indicating their major stars, beneath their illustrations. With a little trial-and-error, several tricky turns, and and a handful of tight corners with the copper tape, all of the constellations were alit.

constellation pages

Student Constellation Drawings.

Student Constellations Illuminated

Students with their illuminated constellation illustrations.

As students folded their constellation drawings over their illuminated circuits, excitement and amazement dotted the room like stars crowded in the night sky.

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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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Lighting Up the Libraries

working with paper

PAA Artist-Educator Ben Horvat (right) works with a student at a recent wearable technology workshop at the Gates Mills branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

This fall Progressive Arts Alliance has teamed up with the Cuyahoga County Public Library to host a series of wearable technology workshops. Students learn the basic physics of circuits, fiber optics, and the almost endless applications of paper as a material, all while making something that is personally useful to them. It is amazing to see what the students can come up with after just a short 35-55 minute demonstration on LEDs, fiber-optics, and paper-craft. Some have created awesome props like jetpacks, a light disk (like from TRON) and one of my personal favorites, a woven paper constellation map where the ends of the fiber-optics acted as stars. It it wonderful and inspiring to watch these creations unfold.


As a practicing artist and designer who makes technology-integrated reactive clothing and costumes, it has been eye opening to see  the students realize their ideas quickly and unhindered by overly complicated things. As my practice has been refined and has become more of a repeating process than exploration, it is sometimes hard to keep the work fresh and original. Seeing how carefree and fun these mini-projects are for the students reminds me that there needs to be playfulness in making. One has to be able to explore with materials, test, try, and remake until they find something worth putting hours and hours of process into. In the same way I act as a guide for the students through their learning of the technical aspects of making, the students act as a reminder for me about the joys of art making and what originally inspired me to become an artist.

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Exploring Conductive Creativity in the Informal Classroom

Photo Apr 23, 7 39 50 PM

Experimenting with LEDs with a student at the Southeast Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

Winter can be a cold, harsh season here in Cleveland. To get everyone out of the house and into creativity, my colleagues and I have been teaching Conductive Creativity workshops at the Cuyahoga County Libraries over the past several months. These workshops focus on teaching students how to make an LED circuit and how to create a piece of art in the form of a light box. We provide them with all of the materials, give them a brief introduction to circuits, and let them explore. As a fine artist in the education field, it is incredibly fascinating to observe my students as they explore and create with artistic and scientific media that I am just beginning to understand. The freethinking attitudes present in these workshops contribute to communication, as well as innovation amongst peers, students, and teachers alike.

One student's light box.

One student’s light box.

There is such inspiration to be found in the informal classroom. In our most recent workshop, I gave students a variety of multicolored plastic film, LEDs, and foil, with which to decorate their light boxes. Students gravitated towards the various supplies, creating light boxes that I would never have visualized. They were all unique, despite having the same initial box and circuit structure. For example, two sisters of similar ages participated in the Middleburg Heights Library workshop. One sister gravitated towards the visuals, creating elaborately decorated light boxes with only a few circuits. The other went on to create an elongated series circuit, choosing to focus entirely on the electronics and the LEDs. It was exciting to see two dissimilar and opposite projects come from two very alike individuals.

Lighting up LEDs is always exciting.I try to encourage advanced students to assist their peers during the making process. At one point, I began noticing that when one student struggles with his or her circuit, another student will instinctively offer assistance. This exchange of knowledge and seamless collaboration and experimentation is something that has naturally occurred in the Conductive Creativity workshops, and it is something I wish to perpetuate in all of the programs I facilitate at Progressive Arts Alliance.


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Filed under After-School Programs, Artist-Educator Experimentation, May 15 feature

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 importance of remebering the details

The details are so important.  I often forget that it took me many years and many experiences to gain the skill sets and perspectives that I have.  I forget that someone took the time when I was a kid to patiently walk me through all  the details of how to do something right.  Our current project (an LED arch way) incorporates elements of drawing.  We’ve drawn a few things already.  When I look at the kids drawings, generally I’m disappointed and surprised by how little their drawings communicate.  Of course there are always a few who are naturally gifted or have been trained, but for the most part the imagery consists of smiley faces, basketballs, flowers, and hearts, poorly drawn ones at that.  I’m not expecting Picasso’s, but I was expecting to see at least a fascination and curiosity about the drawing process.

What I’ve come to realize is that I have lost touch with the mechanics of drawing that I learned so long ago.  I forgot to spend time focusing on the differences and subtleties of mark making.  How to hold a drawing tool,  fluid movement across a paper, breaking a form into simple shapes,  differences in pencil lead densities, and finally how to choose a subject matter.  By overlooking these steps I’m actually putting the students in the most difficult artistic position, a blank page with infinite possibility, and then expecting them to make something great.  First, they need references and practical skill sets, and hopefully this will propel them forward and transform there drawings into more inspired ones.


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