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"And right before my eyes...." (three-dimensional sculpture)

It was time to initiate the three-dimensional semester of the Middle School Art program. I was looking for a unit what would get across the technical language of additive sculpture, positive and negative space, three-dimensional form and it use, proportion and surface treatment. I also wanted the lesson to bring the students together a positive support for each other, and encourage them to accept an artistic challenge. I recently read an article about Red Grooms and his technique of choosing ordinary people and their environments and sculpting them as three-dimensional caricatures. I decided a modification of Grooms' work might just be the challenge I was looking for. I assigned each student to research and bring in an example of a favorite newspaper caricature artist for display and class discussion.

Instead of observing the people of the streets the New York for subjects, I requested the cooperation of our middle school teaching staff who complied without reservation. After we spent a session studying Red Grooms, slides of his work and discussing materials he might use to form the armature of his sculptures (wood, wire, newspaper, finalized with papier mache), everyone was anxious to begin.

Students were divided into groups of four. Each group picked a staff member's name from a basket. The staff person was then studied by the group and sketched within his or her own classroom. Students concentrated on details which would distinguish personality traits. The preliminary sketches were compiled into a series of group sketches focusing on front, back, aside and facial close-up views. The three-dimensional challenge began when each group w as given modeling clay to form a miniature sculpture of the subject to use as the model for the life-size caricature.

Characterizing a' la Grooms

A demonstration of forming the life-size armature out of newspaper rolls and attaching them to each other with masking tape was next. (Many bundles of newspaper were needed.) The groups were given the option of incorporating wire and/or wood to strengthen their structures. Students were instructed to keep in mind concepts they had learned previously regarding size and proportion of the body., The only exaggerations that were allowed were those shown in the preliminary caricature sketches. First, the head was shaped by crumpling paper to the desired size and wrapping it with tape. From there students proceeded to the shoulders, then on to the arms, trunk, legs and feet.

Some of the figures had been sketched sitting; this presented another sculptural challenge. With each step of the process there was pause for demonstration, discussion and inquiry. The students maintained a very positive, motivated attitude and were excited at the accomplishments of each day.

Forms and


When the armatures were solidly joined and held the desired form, the next step was to apply the papier mache. A discussion, supported by slides of papier-mache technique and how it has been used historically, led to a demonstration of how it would be used to strengthen their now five-to six-foot tall sculptures. Half-inch strips of newspaper were cut or torn, then dipped into a wheat paste mixture. The strips were laid over the newspaper armatures, each strip overlapping slighting and smoothed into form. At this point, the sculptures resembled eerie mummies. Now each group was ready to form the facial and distinguishing features.

A demonstration was given on adding folded or rolled paper to form details such as cheeks, lips ears and hair. Plaster of Paris strips were also incorporated at this time as an option for resurfacing, strengthening and adding sculptural textures wherever needed. Many of the students used the plaster of Paris gauze to finalize the surface of the face and hands. Any rough areas were smoothed or shaded. Thoughts turned toward acrylic paints and mixing colors.

What's in a Color?

As the students began discussing painting their sculptures, we stopped for a few minutes to refocus on our objective of developing three-dimensional caricatures of selected subjects. When Red Grooms chose colors to finish his subjects and their environments, he often used colors that he felt depicted or emphasized the personality and character of that individual. I challenged my eighth grade students to do the same. When back in their groups, discussions focused on what mixture of colors would form the] skin tone and clothing, and those that would carry through the characteristics they were trying to emphasize in their subject. Tints and shades of olive green began to emphasize facial features in one sculpture, while in another a pale yellow face with bright blue eyes emerged from a blue striped shirts. As they completed the painting process, the students spent many moments. laughing and giggling at what they had developed together, before their very eyes.

An Amazing Accomplishment

The eleven completed caricatures were positioned for display in our middle school library. The students chose to arrange their sculptures in a life-like staff meeting situation. With some of the caricatures sitting, some standing and others learning or drinking coffee, they easily took on a life-like appearance. My students were amazed at what they had accomplished in the brief four weeks, and thrilled at the astonishment of the teachers and the entire school population.

Not only had I succeeded in emphasizing the possibilities of additive sculpture, but I had accomplished my initial goal of encouraging my eighth grade students to accept an artistic challenge without reservation.
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Author:Brunner, Peggy
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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