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Frieze it: students will learn to turn an idea into a three-dimensional piece of art.

As a teacher of visual arts in two schools, I am always trying to create a project that incorporates many skills and enthralls the students. Our plaster frieze really fills the bill.

I teach this project following many sessions of drawing and painting in my curriculum. The project relates to the ancient relief carvings often found near the tops of historic buildings, or in rooms or on doors. Some examples are the Great Frieze of the Pergamon Altar or the bronze doors of the Cathedral of Pisa by Bonanno.

To begin, show photographs of friezes to students. Point out that some objects or figures appear further away than others. Talk about how that effect was achieved. Suggest suspending objects in their friezes. We like to include curtains to frame and enhance the figures.

Students will learn to turn an idea into a two-dimensional drawing and the drawing into a three-dimensional piece of art of which they will be proud. There are opportunities to express individuality and problem solve along the way.

This project has been successful in mixed age groups, six years old and up. It can also be done as a group project. In the Presidio Hill School, we have a large auction as a fund-raiser. The plaster pieces make a great auction item. In the Bolinas Stinson School, we videotaped a Calder-type circus and filmed the children describing the plaster circus acts.

Steps for building plaster friezes

Materials: Plywood, composition board or heavy cardboard for a base; plaster gauze; Plaster of Paris; acrylic or tempera paints; clear plastic spray

Preparation: Sketch possible designs on paper-suggest ideas and themes. Bigger characters work better and are easier to build. Two or three large figures are better than five small ones. Explain that curtains come in many different shapes and combinations. Check all drawings.

Process: Start building plaster frieze by cutting plaster gauze to size and arranging on base. Always follow gauze instructions. Soak five seconds. Remind students that gauze gets hard and becomes unusable if not used quickly. Place over base, spread out and over sides and around the back. After background layer is in place, smooth in gentle circular motions.

For the top curtain cut a long horizontal piece of gauze and place it wet on the top of the board, approximately 1/2" over edges. Take tucks the way you want them, smooth down, and adhere. To add side curtains place two matching pieces on each side and over the side edge. Ribbons may be added to hold the curtains in place. Make folds and tucks where you like. Smooth in places and on sides and back.

Sketch drawings on plaster backgrounds. Demonstrate building around forms for heads, balls, etc. Take the amount of clay that seems right and just roll it into a ball; if too small, add a layer. When it looks right place it on the background. Smooth where object meets background. To make arms and legs, roll folded piece like a clay snake. Press down and smooth where it meets background. For clothes, add on gauze-like material. Add features and small details. Other items, such as toothpicks, wooden popsicle sticks, wire or other scrap objects, may be added to complete the composition. Allow to dry for at least one day.

To paint the plaster frieze, use acrylics or tempera mixed to the consistency of half-and-half cream. Paint background and curtain, then the figure. Ask students to cover all white spots. Paint carefully, expecially where figures meet the background. Children will have to go back and fix drops and spots, so save the mixed paint. After painting, which usually takes two forty-five minute sessions, let dry overnight. When dry, you may want to seal the work with a clear plastic spray. (Use only if a well ventilated work area or booth is available.)

Evaluation: When looking at the finished projects, discuss textures, composition, use of space and three dimensional effect.

Vickisa Feinberg teaches art at the Presidio Hill, San Francisco and Stinson School, Bolinas. California.
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Author:Feinberg, Vickisa
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1990
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