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Clay masks.

Sixth graders in the Montgomery County Public Schools study Africa as part their Social Studies unit. It is always a challenge to integrate their studies with an African mask project using clay. Young students love working with clay--a medium which is too often avoided in elementary school art programs.

The entire mask project took about four class periods. (I allotted a fifty-minute class to the fifth and sixth graders. This includes a ten-minute cleanup.)

The First Class

I began by showing slides on African art and culture. I also use a chart on African symbolism and showed several original masks.

We talked about the masks and the students made a list of African art characteristics and concepts. Some simple ideas are:

1. symbolic, geometric (abstract) motifs

2. repetitive designs and textural patterns

3. animal, mythical figures, human beings

4. bas-relief (not completely three-dimensional)

5. materials used (Africans use mainly wood--we used clay)

6. influence on twentieth-century artists such as Picasso and Modigliani

I used examples of various stages of clay masks: (a) greenware--dry but not yet fired; (b) bisqueware; (c) fired with additions of beads, shell, bone, raffia, feathers, coins, bits of glass, etc.

I gave each student two sheets of paper and they designed four African masks. They chose the best design, and made it larger. They cut out the finished mask shape, and used it in the next class to lay on top of a clay slab.

Second Class

I demonstrated the clay slab project, flattening the clay with a rolling pin. We used canvas covers on the tables with rags under every slab of clay. The stencil was placed on top of the clay and the lines were transferred through the paper onto the clay with a sharp pencil. The eyes were completely cut out to give a mystical effect. We pinched, squeezed or pressed the designs into the clay, and also used the bisque stamps, designed by the sixth graders, to do repeat patterns, and a clay extruder which is an instant success for hair, coils, etc.

After the demonstration, I passed out foam lunch trays, rags and clay slabs. The students had time to transfer their design to the clay slab, start the mask and, when the class ended, pick up the masks and damp rag and place them on a tray. They placed the slab-projects on the tray and covered them tightly with a baggie tied with a wire. We placed small damp sponges in with the projects to keep them moist until the next class.

Third Class

Students took their slab projects out, still lying on the damp rag, and used the entire period to finish the bas-relief. Some students put a crumpled newspaper under their masks to give them a slight curve.

Fourth Class

I fired the masks before glaze was applied. This step sometimes has to wait until two weeks after the bas-reliefs are finished. It often takes that long for the clay to dry thoroughly.

We used underglaze and sometimes a clear transparent glaze on top, then glaze-fired at cone 06. Many students preferred the natural matte look instead.

The additions of raffia, beads, feathers etc. were done after the mask was fired for the second time. We evaluated the artwork discussing the craftsmanship, (glaze, clay as medium) design, African art, shape, appeal, etc. Students were asked to be critical in a positive way, offering suggestions rather than negative comments.

African masks are exciting, beautifully designed, and a very worthwhile project.

Debbie Stern, currently an art teacher at Fallsmead Elementary School, Rockville Maryland, presented this lesson at Dufief Elementary School, Gaithersberg, Maryland.
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Author:Stern, Debbie
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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