Future Reflections                                                               Convention Report 2005

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Artistically Expressing Emotions Art Materials and Techniques for a Tactile Arts Class

by Ann Cunningham
[email protected]
(303) 238-4760

This class was originally inspired by the drawing exercise outlined in the book Drawing on the Artist Within, by Dr. Betty Edwards. Fireside edition (April 6, 1987) ISBN: 067163514X

Class size: Ten students
Art Product: one experimental piece and three emotion pieces per student
Time: 4 hours

50 pounds of water-based clay, premixed (This can be found at ceramic supply or art supply stores.)
100 pounds of casting plaster (This can be found at building supply or ceramic supply stores in large quantities and less expense, or in smaller quantities at much higher prices at art/hobby shops.)
16 Sentra boards, 8” x 11”, or other flat, flexible waterproof material
(Sentra is a plastic product frequently found in signage shops. Lightweight cardboard, such as the cardboard used for packing dress shirts, will work, too.)
Duct tape
20 one-gallon Ziploc plastic bags
80 cardboard strips, 2” x 11”
2 five-gallon water buckets
2 plastic cups
1 wire or string (to cut the clay)
A variety of tools (for shaping or marking the clay)
Rolling pins (one for each one or two students, or you can substitute wooden dowels cut to 15” lengths), ceramic wire loops, hairpins, wooden tools, butter knives, putty knives, old toothbrushes or combs, jar lids, wooden blocks—you can use anything that will create texture or shape. Ask students to bring tools in, too.
Sleepshades or blindfolds, 1 per student
The NFB Materials Center sells sleepshades. See <www.nfb.org>.)

Before Class:
Protect your workspace appropriately from possible water or wet plaster spills. The amount of time and the abilities of the
student will determine the tasks that the students will be required to perform.

Test plaster-mix proportions. I usually use an 8 oz plastic cup in the water bucket and a 10 oz paper cup in the plaster bag, we then mix one-cup water to two-cups plaster. You mix plaster by first putting the water into the plastic bag and then sprinkling the plaster into the water. There should be a plaster island in the middle of the water. If there isn’t an island, add more plaster. Don’t mix until the plaster is all sprinkled in and it has had a chance to soak for a moment. Then close the bag and mix until all the lumps are gone. You can place the bag on the table and use one hand to hold the top up, and use the other hand to push out the lumps. The mixed
plaster should be of a consistency a little thicker than heavy cream but not as thick as toothpaste. Take note of the proportions. Each brand of plaster will mix with different proportions.

You can add more plaster to a plaster-mix that is too thin, or more water to plaster that is too thick, but use very small amounts because it takes very little to change the consistency. It is far easier and less messy to mix it correctly the first time. If a student’s plaster starts to set up before they have a chance to pour, throw the mix away; don’t try to force it into the mold.

The Class

Begin: Take some time to name and then hand around the different tools. The tools are kept in a box in the middle of the table once they have gone around the table. Students only have to ask for the box to find the tool they want.

Hand out the Sentra (or cardboard) boards, one to each student.

Open a 25 pound bag of clay and cut into ten slabs with the wire cutter or the cord.

Hand out the cardboard strips, 2 per student, to make a frame. Score and fold each strip in half to form a right angle. Tape the strips together end to end with the duct tape to form a square frame about 5 ½” x 5 ½” .

Form the clay mold: Ask the students to roll out the clay onto the board. Make it a little bigger than the cardboard frame. The smoother the better, but it is not critical that it is even. Point out that the only part of their work that is going to come out in the plaster is that part contained within the cardboard frame.

Ask the students to explore with some tools by making marks into the clay. Instruct them not to use symbols, either pictures or words. After they have had some time to experiment with different tools, instruct them to push one of their thumbs into the clay. Then, tell them to make a clay cube and secure it onto the clay slab near, but not on, the thumbprint.

When students are finished with their work, have each student push the cardboard frame into the clay. Push the clay on the
outside of the box up to the cardboard to create a seal. If there isn’t any clay in some spots around the perimeter, just add a roll of clay and push it into place.

Mix plaster, create the first piece, examine and discuss pieces: Give the students the proportions of water and plaster for the mix and explain the proper way to combine them. When it is time to pour, the students can accomplish this by aiming the lip of the bag into the middle of the boxed area and tipping it in with the other hand. Once all the plaster is in the box, pound the table to level the plaster and release any air bubbles.

While the first experimental piece is getting hard, students can prepare their next piece. Distribute clay and plastic boards and roll the clay out. Fit the box onto the slab to make sure it is big enough. Start to talk about emotions in general and the particular emotion you want to explore next. Ask students how they would sing, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” if they were happy and how would it sound if they were mad?

After the plaster is hard, the students can unmold their first project. Gently tear the cardboard from the plaster. Pick the plastic board up and gently peel it away from the plaster. Try not to twist or apply pressure to the fresh plaster or it might crack. (It will become quite sturdy over the next few days.)

Now find the thumbprint that was pushed into the clay. How does it appear now? Where is the cube? It was on the clay, where is it in the plaster?

Take note of the other marks and effects various tools created in the plaster relief. Make sure students share what they did and discuss techniques and tools they used.

The emotion piece: Next, have the students prepare to work on expressing a specific emotion in their second piece. Get quiet for a moment; remind them that only what is in the box will be in the finished plaster. Also, remember no symbols—pictures or words—can be used.

Now, ask them to go inside themselves. Ask them to feel the emotion they will portray in this work; for example, “Feel joy. Feel it in your stomach, let it flow up to your shoulders and come out of your hands and right into the clay. Do not think about it, feel it.”
As soon as a student is finished have the student prepare and pour the plaster. Do not wait, many times work will be lost if students have too much time to think about what they did. Mark the work with the student’s name and the emotion as soon as possible.

Create the final piece(s), examine pieces, and discuss emotions: Reclaim the clay used in the first project and roll it out again. Once everyone is ready, go on to the second emotion and then, if you have time, the third (depending on how much time you have). Make sure there is plenty of time to unmold all of the plaster pieces and for each student to examine his or her own work, and all the pieces by the other students, too. We always take the time to examine each set of emotions as the pieces are unmolded. It is also beneficial to review each emotion at a later date. Once students start thinking about these emotions, more information will come into their conscious mind.

Do not shortchange this part of the process. By talking about how they expressed their emotions, students gain insight into themselves. By comparing with other students, they learn more about their classmates. They can also apply this information as they examine artwork in accessible collections.

Note: This is a modified class. I typically run this class for 15 hours over a period of weeks. We examine about eight emotions. We then have time to do a larger picture using two plastic boards taped side by side. In this final picture, students are allowed to
use any and all devices to express themselves. I still discourage the use of symbols or words in the final piece. The last class is a fieldtrip to a museum where we can get in touch with art. Docents are always impressed that these museum patrons have so much to say about the art. If possible, I suggest that you add the fieldtrip as a follow-up activity to your class.

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