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Sculpture is the medium most commonly ignored by elementary art teachers. But your kids deserve to create in three dimensions, and Cassie has some ideas on how to bring some sculptural lessons into your classroom! Listen as she discusses her favorite materials and where to find them, her favorite projects to teach, and why your students love to sculpt. Full episode transcript below.
Cassie: Okay. I’m gonna share with you a little story, a little something that happened to me this week, which is only ever so slightly if I stretch it a bit, related to what we’re gonna chat about today. I was teaching my second graders. They just walked in the door. Let me tell you, they are currently pumped about what we are working on in art class. We have a pirate themed art show coming up, so all of my students are working on all things pirate-y. The second graders are making treasure boxes. More on that shortly, but let me tell you they are the envy of the school and they are super stoked about these treasure boxes. Anyway, second grade piles in. They’re all chilling out on the floor as they always do. I’m getting ready to give instructions when one of my sweet little students leans over, like hard lean, only on one arm, perfect diagonal line, leans over and y’all, lets out the biggest rip roaring-est toot you ever did hear.
Now, these students, this particular class, is extremely, extremely sweet and very well-behaved. They just looked at me. They were dying to bust a gut, but they didn’t want to because they knew better. I’m telling you, this is an exceptionally great class. Y’all, they were shaking. Tears were rolling down their cheeks. They just wanted to bust out and laugh, so you know what? Sometimes you just gotta embrace it. I said, “Y’all, this is art class, not fart class.” Whew. They just about died. I know, completely inappropriate. Also, I know not gonna have any relevance to what we’re about to do and chat about today, but I just had to share. It’s those funny things that happen in art that strangely, that’s probably what they’re going to remember in a handful of years. Hopefully they’ll also remember these amazing treasure boxes.
Pulling back to that, what are we chatting about today? Not passing of gas in the art room, but let’s today talk about sculpture projects in the art room. I sometimes feel like sculpture gets a little bit neglected in the art room, especially for those of us who have a kiln. A lot of us will do clay projects and, of course, that is a form of sculpture, and not necessarily do sculpture projects with your kids, whether that be because of storage or just a lack of comfort of working with those supplies. Today I’m gonna share with you my favorite materials to start hoarding, the best way to store them, what I really love to use as the sculpture compound, what we use to hold it together, and my favorite sculpture projects. I promise not to pass any gas along the way. I’m Cassie Stevens and this is Everyday Art Room.
Okay. First of all, if you have not done any sculpture projects with your students so far this year, not to worry. I actually feel like the end of the school year is the best time to do sculpture projects with your students, the reason being is because it’s a great way to use up all of those recycled things that have been donated to your room throughout the course of the year, anything that you’ve been stockpiling, all of those donations. Now’s the time to use them all up and then get them out of your room. Here’s my favorite things to start hoarding because they make the best armatures for sculptures. Regardless of what the sculpture is, these are my favorites.
I am a huge fan of the toilet paper tube. That is one supply that I never seem to run out of. Send out a school-wide email. Let your students know that you’re collecting them. Next thing you know, you’re gonna have more TP tubes than you know what to do with. Trust me, you’re gonna use them all. I absolutely love them. I used to think that paper towel tubes were also where it’s at until I discovered, and this might not be the same for you, the magic of the school paper towel tube.
The paper towel tubes at my school are a lot thicker. They’re a little bit bigger. They really do withstand a lot of sculpture projects. They’re a thicker kind of cardboard and I absolutely love them. My school custodians know to start saving them. They don’t understand why. They’re always like, “What are you gonna do with all these tubes?” These tubes are the bomb. Check out the ones that you have at your school. I promise you that they might be a little bit better than the ones that you would find at your house or have people start collecting. You’re gonna love them. That’s not a sentence that I thought that I would say. You’re gonna love paper towel tubes. You’re just gonna love them. Yet, here I am and genuinely true about that.
I love aluminum foil. Now, I don’t use a lot of recycled aluminum foil so that kinda falls into the you’re gonna have to purchase it category. I really like getting aluminum foil from the Dollar Tree because it’s pre-cut into sheets. That’s right. If you’re doing a project, and I’ll share some with you, where you’re gonna be using aluminum foil, the pre-cut sheets really cuts down on your prep time.
Cassie: My school cafeteria is an endless source of amazing sculpture items. Chat with the manager of your school cafeteria. Just let her know, “Hey, I’m working with some sculpture. I’m gonna gear up to do some sculpture projects with my students. What are some things that you tend to throw out that you have in abundance?” I get from my school cafeteria manager cardboard. I guess they must have it in between the cans that they get. It’s all cut in a certain size. It’s really great thickness and I love it.
Another great thing, and this isn’t necessarily for creating sculptures, but it is great for storage of sculptures, are those little boxes that have the short, about three inch, lip on them that holds the cans. Those are great for storage of clay projects, of sculpture projects, of artwork. Ask for those and cans come in super handy also. Just kinda chat your cafeteria manager up and see what she’s got.
At the beginning of the school year, I always send out an email kind of requesting certain things, the things that I’ve mentioned and in addition, packing materials. So many people shop online. So much of that stuff you could use for sculpture. Packing peanuts isn’t really a thing anymore, but I do still have a huge supply of those when people did ship with packing peanuts. Never hurts to ask, right? One thing, though, that they are using a lot more now for shipping are those kind of … I call them packing pillows. It’s just a piece of plastic with air blown into it. Those make great sculpture items. You might wanna ask for that. The only problem with those is they’re a little bit big, so not fun to store until sculpture time.
Cereal boxes make amazing armatures, and just that perfect thickness of cardboard you can use for os many different things. Start asking for those. Restaurant supply containers are some of my favorite things to use in the art room, but I only want them if they’re clean. I don’t want no dirty stuff. Recently, I was given a massive box of probably over a thousand hotdog containers from Sonic. I thought to myself, “What am I gonna do with these?” You guys, I am using them nonstop in my art room. Also, some things you might wanna consider are hotdog and french fry containers, that little paper container that those come in, even ice cream sundae, the plastic containers. If you need those kind of things and you can’t seem to track them down, restaurant supply companies have all of those things on hand and you can buy them in bulk. Just Google search “restaurant supply” in your area and you’ll be surprised. You’ll go in there and just be amazed at all of the resources for an art teacher that happen to be at a restaurant supply.
Other random things that I tend to hoard are clean drinking straws, clean chopsticks, and just random bits. I have written down on my list construction paper. I don’t … I guess … oh, yes. I know where I’m going with that, and random bits of construction paper. Okay. Those are my favorite materials. Storing them, like I said, not my favorite thing. If you can get some of those crates, like college dorm room kind of crates that you can find pretty inexpensively at stores like the Dollar Tree or Five Below, I love to keep my toilet paper tubes in those. They’re a nice size. They’re stackable, so if I have my tubes in those and then I also have packing materials or cereal boxes or tag board, I can just kind of stack those up. Then they’re easy for me to move, get out for the kids to get into, and then put away.
Also, again, those shallow boxes that you can get from your cafeteria, those are great for storing your construction paper. If you are a little bit OCD and you wanna organize it by color, I don’t know what that life is like ’cause that’s not me, but hey, you do you boo boo. Think about how you’re going to start storing these things, because once you ask for a donation, you’ll be amazed at how much you’re going to get. Definitely have some sort of idea for storage in place before the next you thing you know you’ve got a mountain of stuff and your custodian is just looking at you shaking his head, as mine does every single day.
All right. Those are my favorite materials. What do we use in my room to construct with? Meaning, what’s my favorite sculpture supplies to use with my elementary students? I used to totally steer clear of sculpture, because for me, in my mind, the only material that I could think to use was paper mache. Me, personally, I don’t love paper mache. I don’t love it because there’s the prep of mixing it. I don’t love it because it … you can make it, but then in a matter of days it starts to get a real funky smell. Y’all know what I’m talking about. You’ve gotta chuck it. Also, if you’re using things like a wheat paste for your paper mache, then you’ve gotta make sure you double check with the school nurse so that there are no allergies.
If you love paper mache and you really want to use it, one paper mache material … like material that I have found that works great is something called art paste. I was told about art paste years ago. We’ve used it as a kind of paper mache substitute in my room. I remember when I first got the box of it in my room it kind of threw me for a loop because the box is literally like three inches tall and two inches wide. I thought, “Ha, what is this, a sample pack? How am I suppose to make anything with this?” That little tiny box does go a long way. For me, I tend to steer clear of art paste and paper mache.
Here’s what I prefer to use instead. I really love plaster. In particular, Activa products makes something called Rigid Wrap. Now, full disclosure, Activa, I work with them sometimes and they send me materials to use for free. I have gotten a lot of Rigid Wrap from them for that reason. It isn’t an inexpensive material. It’s not cheap, but I really, really love it. Full disclosure there. While I do get it from them, I do truly love it. I like it because it dries very quickly, unlike paper mache. I like it because it’s not quite as messy as paper mache. There is the strong dust factor of plaster. I also like it because when the projects are finished, they are rock solid.
Let me give you a quick tip if you’re using plaster. When I order the Rigid Wrap, I order it in the biggest size that I can get, which is probably about 12 … a 12 inch tall roll. When you get it, you’re gonna be like, “Oh my lanta. How am I going to prep this for my students?” Here’s what I do. I put the giant roll of plaster wrap in a shallow box, one of those boxes I mentioned before. I cut through the entire roll with a box cutter. I basically just slice the whole roll in half. Then, I cut that into smaller strips on my paper cutter. It’s a quick process. I can get through it pretty easily. One giant roll will usually do me for two classes, depending on the size of the project.
Some other things that I like to use with my students, I like to use CelluClay. It’s also by Activa products. It’s kind of like a paper paste. All you do is add water. You do need to prep that in advance. I don’t recommend having kids do that because there’s a strong dust factor when you’re adding the water and mixing it. You can prepare it in advance. What I do is I wrap in the … I make about a size … depending on the project, I make a size per table. If you can imagine about the size of a grapefruit per table, like I said, it just depends on the project we’re doing. Then I wrap it in aluminum foil and put it in the fridge for the next day. I just keep wrapping it up and putting it in the fridge and reusing it until it’s gone.
Another material that I like to use is Model Magic. I’ll share with you some things that we’ve done with Model Magic. That’s made by Crayola. Those are my top three favorite sculpture materials to use. Let’s talk about my favorite projects using those materials you’re going to start collecting and the Rigid Wrap, the CelluClay, and the Model Magic. I’m gonna start at the top with kindergarten.
All of these sculpture projects that I’m about to share I’ve got them on my blog and they … a lot of them have video. All you have to do, for your sanity, is either show the video to your students or watch it so you know the process and you know how to do it a little differently, depending on what works well for you and your kids. Let’s chat kindergarten. My most favorite sculpture project to do with my kindergarten students, and I do it on the very first day, are paper sculptures. Remember how I said to start collecting all your bits and pieces of construction paper? That’s what you’re going to use it for.
Simply put, all they’re doing is sculpting with paper. I remember the first time I saw one of my teacher … art teacher neighbors. She had her students walking out of the room with these paper sculptures. I thought, “Oh my gosh. How did five year olds make those?” You guys, my five year olds now do it on the very first day of art. They look amazing. All they do is they take a scrap of paper, usually they’re cut into strips in my room, fold one end of it. We call it folding a foot. Put a little glue on that. Press it down onto the base paper that they’re using. Do the same thing to the other end of that strip of paper, either bringing it up like an arch or zigzag folding it or spiraling it. Next thing you know, after you’ve taught them those simple steps, they will have the most amazing sculptures. Always hang onto that construction paper, ’cause paper sculptures. This year, I actually did a getting to know you paper lion sculpture project that I did with all of my students. That, of course, you can find on my blog.
One thing that my kindergartners are getting ready to do tomorrow is they are going to be making some under the sea sculptures. They created, out of clay, some fish. Now they’re going to get a little tiny block of insulation foam. You can buy that at your local hardware store. I just snap the foam into small pieces over the edge of my table. They use that foam as their base. They’ll have pipe cleaners to stick into the foam, packing peanuts to add to the top of the pipe cleaner, and even little cut pieces of cardboard because cardboard has a little I’m … corrugated, I almost said curigated, corrugated wavy line and side. You can slide it down the pipe cleaner and add that to the sculpture, too. My kids bend the pipe cleaners into different kind of lines and shapes. We will use that as part of our “seaweed” in our sculptures with our fish. Those are my favorite couple of sculpture projects that I like to do with my kindergarten students. Simple. Fun. They love it.
Moving on to first grade. Now, last year, my first graders saw a project that I happened to be doing with some of my fourth grade students. They laid eyes on these stubby little pencil sculptures that my fourth graders were making out of toilet paper tubes, snow cone … the little cone shaped … paper cone shaped thing that snow cones come in, and Rigid Wrap. They begged me to let them make it. I thought, “I don’t know how this is gonna go. They’re in first grade.” Y’all, they rocked it. It’s now one of my favorite projects to do with my younger students. It is what looks like a kid who’s taken a pencil to the pencil sharpener way too many times. It looks like a cute little stubby pencil. Again, toilet paper tube, snow cone cone, aluminum foil for the metal part of the pencil, the ferrule, and plaster and paint. Boom. You’ve got pencils.
Let’s talk about second grade. I don’t do tons of these really big, long, elaborate sculptures with my younger kids, but starting with second grade, we really start to roll up our sleeves and do some more things. My second graders a couple of years ago did Jim Dine inspired CelluClay hearts. Remember how I shared that the aluminum foil comes in pre-cut sheets? All they had to do was make a heart with their hands. You know how we can take two hands to make the two halves of a heart, put it together and we have a whole one? That’s the same motion I had them use to take a piece of aluminum foil and sculpt a heart. Then they covered the heart with CelluClay. All they did was roll it into small balls, pat it flat, and lay it on their aluminum foil heart.
One of the things I absolutely love about CelluClay is this. My classes are 30 minutes long. When they were covering their hearts with CelluClay, some of the kids finished in 30 minutes and most of them didn’t. That’s okay. I didn’t have to wrap it up. I didn’t have to put it in a bag. Even though the CelluClay dried, the next time they came to art class, they could continue working on it. It doesn’t have to stay damp for you to continue adding more bits of CelluClay to it. From there, they painted them one solid color and then explored adding different kind of lines and brush strokes to their CelluClay heart to have it more Jim Dine inspired.
Last year, we, as a part of our art show theme, we had a “art supply store.” The first graders, like I said, they made pencils. My second graders, they made glue sticks and scissors. Let me tell you I phoned in the glue stick sculpture. Remember those toilet paper tubes? Y’all, they literally just covered that toilet paper tube in plaster. You got the visual? Then when that dried, they painted the top of it orange, the bottom of it a smaller little bit of orange, and then a little patch of blue in the center. Wa-lah. You have a glue stick. I felt pretty badly about how easy that sculpture project was. From there, they also made a pair of scissors with two tongue depressors, aluminum foil. With that, they sculptured the top, or the handle, of the scissors, and they covered that handle with plaster wrap. If you’re not getting a visual, trust me when I say I have all the details on my blog.
Now, like I said, oh, this year they’re making these treasure boxes. Y’all, it is so much fun. I literally went in my closet and I just looked for boxes. I happened to have a couple of supplies, or stashes, of little gift boxes that I’ve been given over the years. We used gift boxes with the hotdog container on top. They draped the plaster wrap over those and then, after that dried, they’ve been adding details with Model Magic, details like a lock or the straps to the top of the treasure box. It’s been a huge, huge hit.
For third grade, they’re currently, because like I said, we have a pirate theme, they are currently using toilet paper tubes and those hotdog containers to sculpt parrots, parrots using plaster. Now, last year, they are the kids who made the crayons. The crayons are made with those paper towel tubes from my custodian buddy that they had to a roll a piece of tag board to create the cone at the top, covered it with that Rigid Wrap. Then they explored color mixing. They had to come up with their own name for their color of their crayon as well as their own very specific color. When we displayed their crayons at the art show, that’s when our cereal boxes came into play. I spray painted them white and then, as a team of two kids, they had to paint their crayon boxes to look like a Crayola crayon box using yellow and green.
Fourth grade, that’s a grade that really loves sculpture so much. They all do. I’m serious. Fourth grade we do so much. One of my favorite projects we did, which requires very little supplies, is making paint tubes. That was also a part of our art supply store. To create the paint tube, you have to have a toilet paper tube that you flatten on one end. If you can imagine, it already starts to look like a paint tube. Then we covered that with just a couple of strips of plaster since they’re small. To show that the paint was kind of squirting out of the tube, the un-flattened part of it, we used CelluClay to create a coil coming out of it. Once those dried, again just like third grade, they had to come up with their own unique color, give it a very special name. One that stands out in my mind was called Grandma Blue, and come up with a label for their paint company.
There’s a lot of artists that can … you can pull to inspire your kids for these projects, so definitely check out pop artists that you can share with your students when you’re doing these kind of sculpture projects. Do you remember how I told you to start hoarding those pillow … packing pillows I was calling them? We used those covered in plaster to make a spilled glue bottle. We covered it with white plaster. Then we use Model Magic that was orange and blue to create the top, or the nozzle, or the glue bottle and then the label on its side. A little bit of yarn dipped in glue, that became the glue that was spilled coming from the glue bottle. We’ve made candy hearts with tag board and plaster. This year, they’re making ships in a bottle using the cardboard that I’ve gotten from my school cafeteria and a little bit of Model Magic to create more like a relief scene of a ship in a bottle.
Ah. Sculpture for a long time for me with kids was very daunting. I think it was so because I didn’t know what art supplies I would feel comfortable enough sharing with my kids. Find where you’re comfortable. Maybe you really enjoy creating with paper mache yourself. Think back to sculpture projects that you enjoyed making as a kid and what art supplies you used. Tip toe into it. Just try it out. Or, just let the kids explore masking tape, bust out those supplies, just let them have fun and see what they can come up with. So many of our amazing ideas of what we wanna share with our kids come from the kids themselves. Find out their interests, what really sparks their imagination. Just enjoy the process. That’s what it’s all about.
Let’s take a tiny little dip into the mail bag. I’m gonna call this the lightening round. I’ve been sharing a lot of my art show preparations lately on my Instagram and I’ve gotten a lot of questions. I thought I’d go through them real fast. One of them was this. “Cassie, do you still use Artome for your art shows, and if so, isn’t that just one piece of art per student?” Yes. I do use Artome. I do actually two art shows and my winter art show is an Artome art show, where you are correct, they only feature one work of art. I could expand that and showcase other things, but knowing that I have this massive art show at the end of the year, I just do the one work of art.
Side note, I teach 350 students. I hang everything that every kid has made all year long. It sounds daunting, but I know a lot of you are like, “Wait, wait, wait. What? Did she just say she teaches 350 kids?” That’s correct. I’m at a very small school and I have a couple of moms who are willing to hang it all. I’m very fortunate.
This next question says, “Do you, by chance, get release time for setting up the art show?” Yeah, no. I get the day of the art show “off,” meaning that they bring in a sub to take over my classes, which is awesome. The sub keeps the classes in a separate location so that I can spend that time in my room setting up everything, like clay projects, in my room.
Last question, “Do all of your projects fit into the theme of your art show? How do you incorporate the non-theme items?” Great question. I do a theme. I usually figure out my theme about halfway through the year, about two months before the art show. The theme usually revolves around what we’re going to do with our clay. In years past it was a 1950s diner. We all made food. Last year it was superhero themed, so we all made clay projects based on that. This year, it’s pirates, so all of our sculpture and clay projects are based on that. Those are showcased both in my room and in this year, a glow gallery. Those will be based on the theme.
In the halls, it will be artwork we’ve done all year long, artwork that doesn’t have anything to do with the pirate-themed art show, but it’s still an art show and we still share that work. We just kinda keep the two themes a little bit separate, but I don’t know. We’ve been doing it this way for so long, it just kinda works. In my mind, it makes perfect sense. Just don’t ask anybody else. If you have a question for me, you should ask. You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you start sending out that school email requesting things for sculpture, you’re going to get some weird stuff, just so you know, because when you say that you want X, Y, and Z, people are going to think that you essentially want all of their garbage. Let me just share with you right quick some of the oddities that I’ve received over the years. Prescription drug bottles, not really something I want, especially when all the information of the person is on the bottle. Seems a little private. I don’t need to know about your … I’m just kidding. That wasn’t on the bottle. I still was a little bit put off by that. Also, when you’re superintendent of schools gives you two 25 pound bags of Mardi Gras beads, you gotta kinda wonder why you haven’t been partying with this guy because he seems pretty amazing. Do you sanitize all those beads or what? How does that work? Just a little word of the wise. Have fun sculpting, guys, and have an awesome week.
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.