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Symbolic Self-Portraits in 3-D.

Self-portraiture is a vital component of any art curriculum. The challenge is to find new ways to introduce this age-old topic, especially for upper-grade elementary students. I wanted to begin with something personal and relevant to them but, at the same time, I wanted to include the language of art and introduce them to works by a professional artist.

Using Exemplars

In the 1970s, Frank Stella created three-dimensional reliefs filled with undulating shapes, swirling lines, and vivid colors. Often based on trips he had taken or books he had read, Stella's abstractions were his stories of his personal journeys.

I chose Frank Stella's three-dimensional abstracts because this body of work tells stories. We looked at and discussed several visuals of Stella's pieces, beginning with the lines, shapes, colors, and patterns. Then, I asked my students, "Do any of these lines or shapes remind you of anything from real life?"

As they studied the reliefs, familiar objects began to emerge. Students also discovered that it looked like these lines and shapes were sticking out from walls.

Using the Basics

I began with the basics: lines, shapes, and patterns. Each student was given a 6 x 9" (15 x 23 cm) piece of white construction paper and a pencil. Placing my paper on the board, I demonstrated how to divide the space of the paper by drawing lines that went from the left edge of the paper to the right edge, leaving enough space between the lines so that shapes could be drawn. Students were allowed to place their papers vertically or horizontally before drawing the lines, which could be straight or curved.

Once the lines were drawn, I introduced symbolic shapes. Examples easily identified by my students, such as sports team logos and the Nike "swoosh" were used. Then, I had the students think about those things that symbolized them by asking them, "What is your favorite color?" "Do you play any sports ?" "What is your favorite team?" "Do you like to read?" and "Do you like music?" Using my lined paper, I filled the spaces between my lines with paint palettes, books, bare trees, ice hockey sticks, and Mickey Mouse. These are some of the shapes that symbolize me. Each line contained one shape and I repeated that shape over and over again to create pattern. I also explained that these patterns created a kind of self-portrait, since they reveal something about me. Then I defined self-portrait.

After discussing pattern, students were given time to draw their own symbolic self-portrait patterns.

Adding Color

The following forty-five minute class period was used for adding color with bold color markers. Because the idea of art class was new to my students, they chose their own color schemes, although color theory or the symbolic use of color could have been introduced in this lesson.

Adding Relief

Next, students set out to make their symbols three-dimensional. With a 6 x 9" (15 x 23 cm) piece of black construction paper for the base, scissors, bottles of white glue, and our symbolically patterned papers, students began to assemble their reliefs. They cut out the lines, put glue on the ends of the first strip, bent it into a curve, and placed both ends down on the base paper. They repeated this process with each strip, placing each so that it curved over the previous one.

The Results Are In

The resulting student works not only revealed the individuals who made them, but showcased the language of art the students had learned. Line, shape, pattern, symbol, self-portrait, and three-dimensional relief became part of the students' vocabulary. With this lesson, students felt a sense of pride because of their finished works. Even those students who had not drawn or colored very well on their original symbolic papers were surprised and happy with the final results!


Students select and use subject matter, symbols, and ideas to communicate meaning.

Kathy A. Miller-Hewes is an art teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School in Davenport, Florida.
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Author:Miller-Hewes, Kathy A.
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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