Tag Archives: Sculpture

Landforms, Relief Sculptures, and Topographic Maps

Say “topographic map” to a 4th grader and see what their definition is. Of course, this would be after the incredulous and bewildered look you’d probably receive, but I digress.

Topography is a difficult concept to explain without visual aids; paper drawings, foam models, and computer images were imperative for helping these students understand the breakdown of height and depth for their relief sculptures. The fourth grade at Michael R. White explored color, gradient, and three-dimensional surface application throughout this project. This gave the students a full sensory experience of their landforms in an effort to make this abstract concept more concrete.

The students were assigned landforms and  researched them using Google Earth. They created two-dimensional paper models, which were individually scanned into a computer and laser cut out of foam. I challenged the 4th grade by asking if we could use color to help people understand our topographic maps. They responded by painting each piece a slightly lighter or darker shade of one color to create a gradient. The gradient demonstrated where the sunlight would hit the top of their island or mountain thus communicating the height of their landform. The results were absolutely stunning, and the students were thrilled to put together their sculptures. We put papier-mache over part of landforms to show the surface. This allowed the students to see both the gradient layers beneath as well as the Earth’s surface on their landform.

Seeing the sculptures all together created a visual map of relief sculptures which showcased each students’ favorite part of the project. Some were carefully painted to demonstrate light and darkness on the papier-mache as well as the gradient. Others were delicately drawn out and researched with some exactly papier-mache’d to show the curvature of the surface. Each sculpture was incredibly unique with great variation in both color choice and form. In the future, perhaps the sculptures would stop at the gradient to show the full topographic map. This is the only change I would consider making to this project.

Overall, this experience was incredibly successful for the 4th graders at Michael R. White.

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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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When teachers learn … design notes from iterating a project


As I prepare to teach a pinball-inspired kinetic sculpture program for the third time, I think back and realize just how far this project has come and how much I have learned by teaching it. The first iteration of the project consisted of a cardboard base, hot glue and tape for the connections, and a variety of activities where students learned about forces, motion, geometry, and measurement. The goal was for the boards to be able to stand at several different inclines so that the students could experiment with gravity and friction. To accomplish this, PVC pipe legs we provided were interchangeable and they attached to the base with nuts and bolts that penetrated both the PVC and a bracket made of cardboard. The legs fit into a base that was supposed to hold them square. What I learned during the first iteration of this project was that the amount of force applied to the sculpture by the students was greater than the structure I designed could handle. Also, the amount of content I was covering was more than a ten-week residency would allow. Our work in the schools is referred to as residencies. Each residency is one curricular unit that takes place once a week for ten weeks. Despite some setbacks, the students were extremely eager to test variables, they understood forces and motion and had an introduction to math concepts that were several years beyond their grade level. They rose to the challenge and took great pride in their projects.

Fast forward two years. The pinball project was reintroduced to new students after a complete makeover. The cardboard was replaced by pegboard and plywood, the PVC was replaced by a variety of slanted plywood bases, and the tape was replaced by machine screws, nuts, and corner brackets. The focus of the project was on construction, forces, motion, and measurement to ensure that all of the students would really grasp the concepts. There was still experimentation along the way. Several balls were used to experiment and determine the appropriate size and weight for the sculptures the students created.  Additional pieces of wood were also used to prevent the ball from flying off of the board. The project was successful and the students’ work was showcased at the Superelectric Pinball Parlor at 78th Street Studios as part of the monthly art walk.

This year, the goal is to take the project to the next level. There were four key design challenges that were identified last year that I plan to address. The first challenge I identified was that the bases ended up not all being the correct size for the board. In my drawing plans of this year’s project iteration, I’ve included considerations for the slant needed to determine the length of the bases. The second design challenge is finding an appropriate dowel for the peg board.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

Previously, the smallest dowel we could find was too thick to fit into the pegboard. This year we will attach paint stirrers to 4″ nails or golf tees (both of which fit into the pegboard) so that the students will be able to create a variety of interchangeable paths for the ball to travel on through their sculpture. In the past, students had one fixed path in their sculptures. The third design challenge to be addressed is the edges of the board. In the plan I have designed, the edges have been altered and a 1/8″ plexi-sheet has been added to

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

the top that can be lifted off. This will prevent the ball from leaving the board once it is activated by the plunger. The fourth design challenge is mastering the plunger apparatus. This year we ordered 7″ long springs from a pinball machine part supplier. It has been difficult to find springs that are longer than a few inches and are easy enough for students to fully compress. Also, with a thicker edge (1/2″ plywood) and an extra block of wood in the center to guide the rod, we should have a more consistent pushing force. Instead of using pre-threaded rod from a store, we are using smooth rods. We are threading the top and bottom of each smooth rod using a die in the think[box] lab at Case Western Reserve University. Our threading should further enhance the spring driven force and reduce friction. The threading is needed to attach the plunger’s handle and prevent the spring from flying off.

I’m looking forward to sharing this project with a new group of students and yielding even greater results. Stay tuned for more updates on the implementation of this project.

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Making it move. Making it work.

Mound 8th grade kinetic sculptures

Students building kinetic sculptures at Mound STEM School.


During the fall 2014 semester, I presented the eighth grade students at Mound STEM School with the design challenge of creating a Rube Goldberg inspired kinetic sculpture with the end goal of making a mark on a paper with paint or any medium they selected. They were required to have a minimum of three distinct movements within their sculpture as they explored how friction, gravity, balance, pushing force, pulling force, and weight could harmonize to create this art with a purpose.

The moments that were most memorable for me were not the final runs or end results. This residency was so much about learning new skills that are applicable to a wide variety of occupations and making large and small iterations to make each moving component function just so. The beginning of the program was dedicated to teaching the students a variety of ways to connect parts. They learned how to properly use tools to create connections using tethering, screws, bolts, hot glue, and more.

There is a certain confidence that comes with the ability to transform a pile of wood into a structure that moves and a specific sense of accomplishment when something works for the first time after many trials and errors. One group needed to build something resembling a teeter totter that would push one component up when another went down. Each of the group members started with a different collection of material and ideas. They sketched out what they wanted to build and set off trying to master the challenge. After around fifteen minutes, two of the students combined ideas, went back for different materials and created what ended up being their solution. Those group members took it upon themselves to assist other teams who also desired an up and down motion, but each team took a slightly different approach so no two teeter totter mechanisms were the same. These are the moments that were most important in this residency. They were moments of success after a difficult challenge was created.

See some of the students testing their sculptures here:

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Collaborating for Deeper Understanding in the Classroom Lab

Read more about the Kindergarten/2nd Grade Shapes and Boat Residency here.


Artist Educator, Dina Hoeynck, guiding the build phase of the design process with an Orchard kindergartener.

My favorite part of this residency was being able to work in small groups with students and empowering them to use real tools to build from an authentic boat plan.  In most residencies there is only one artist-educator leading the class, so you have to come up with broader activities that engage a classroom of 25-30 students.  However, with this residency for Orchard STEM School’s kindergarten and 2nd graders, I had the opportunity to collaborate and co-instruct with another PAA artist-educator, Dina Hoeynck.  Having a team of two artist-educators allowed us to delve into areas of instruction with younger children that require a more contained learning environment.  Because of this, we were able to work one-on-one with students and transform the classroom into a lab for creating and experimenting. We introduced students to the proper use of tools throughout the various steps of the lab’s design process.  Students were able to develop focused work practices and proper safety procedures.  Through this collaborative work, we saw students gain a new skill set and exercise and refine their  fine motor skills.  The result: Students used their new skills to help measure and cut one-dimensional plastic boards into multiple shapes for the construction of the boat and demonstrated a deeper understanding of how to create a three-dimensional object.


Reading boat plans with students.


Measuring and cutting the coroplast (corrugated plastic) for our boat.



Dina and student Preston assembling boat during the final stage of the design process.


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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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Passport to Knowledge

The 4th grade students at Michael R. White STEM School in Cleveland, Ohio completed their land form low-relief sculpture games before the 2014 winter break. The last blog post about this program explains how the students drew topographic maps, cut them apart and used the pieces as stencils on cardboard. Once stacked, the cardboard formed a low-relief sculpture of the land form that they had been assigned.

The second half of the residency was spent using different techniques and materials to transform the stepped form into a sculpture that more realistically represented land forms and then turning their sculptures into a game.

Students used a paper mâché pulp made of shredded paper that had been soaked in water for several days and wood pulp to fill in the geometric ‘steps’ of the forms. They then smoothed the area further with strips of newspaper dipped in wood glue. This was the point where they started to fully understand the relationship between the topographic maps and the actual landforms. Prior to this point, they learned how a drawing could relate to something with depth, but they didn’t see the in-progress sculptures as landforms. This was 100% realized when they painted their works. Students learned how to gray down colors by mixing in the complimentary color and how to create transitions between colors using a dabbing brush technique as opposed to brush strokes. They were a bit amazed at how realistic the sculptures looked in full color. For those that were still struggling with the academic content, seeing the separation of water and land in color was extremely helpful.


Our last step was turning the sculptures into games by placing them into a labyrinth game base that consisted of knobs attached to strings and springs which allowed the game user to tilt the board in all directions. Each student determined a path that they wanted the ball to travel and selected spots where holes were drilled as ‘traps’ that the game player had to guide the ball around. Click below to see brief footage of students experimenting with a game featuring an island landform:

During the final session students received a passport booklet and learned how passports were used for travel. The booklets had areas for the students to draw each land form and answer questions about it’s location and physical characteristics. They ‘traveled’ to different landforms, played the game and answered the questions. If they filled in each page correctly they earned a stamp just as someone would receive on their passport if they traveled to a foreign country. The creator of each sculpture (and expert on that specific land form) was on-hand to answer questions if necessary. The day was a reward for the work that the students put in that continued the educational process.

This is a follow up article to Land Takes Form published on 11/4/14.

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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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