I’ve noticed the art lessons that really spark curiosity in students have two things in common: multiple tasks that build on each other and the opportunity for students to collaborate with their peers. In this extraterrestrial installation project, students created a clay space creature, worked in small groups to transform a trifold cardboard display into a planet landscape, photographed their creature in the installation, and wrote a story about the creature’s journey.
Alana V., grade five.Bella L. and Kara C., grade four. Maddie T., grade four.Jorden A., grade five, takes a photo of her groupʼs installation.
This project focused on a sense of discovery, imagination, risk-taking, and the exploration of a variety of media and techniques. I wanted students to understand that the “unknown” is an important reason humans are driven to explore. We looked at examples of places that contain the unknown, such as the jungle, the ocean, and outer space, and what resources we need to explore those places.
We began with a visual drawing prompt. I told students, “Close your eyes. Imagine it’s the year 3022. You’re traveling through outer space in a small spaceship. As you journey through the dark, you see something in the distance—a new planet! After landing your ship, you get out to explore. Everything is different and unfamiliar. You hear a high-pitched squeal and turn to see one of the inhabitants of this planet. Draw the creature you’ve discovered.” Each student had a unique approach to visualizing the scene I described.
Students were excited to hear that they would use clay to create sculptures of their creatures. Before they got started, I asked them to each choose a folded piece of paper from a basket. This gave them a specific physical trait to apply to their creature, such as cat eyes, duck feet, snail antennae, and octopus tentacles. Students could determine the rest of the creature’s features themselves. They sketched a final design of their creature and received peer and teacher feedback.
Working with Clay
I modeled clay techniques and students followed along as we created a basic pinch pot form and used the slip and score method to add clay features. Most of the extraterrestrial forms were composed of two pinch pots that, when connected, formed the head and body of the creature. Students used a needle tool to poke a hole into any hollow forms to ensure they safely fired in the kiln. After the first fire, students used glaze to add color. After the glaze fire, students used a variety of mixed-media materials to complete their creatures.
On installation day, I set up a trifold cardboard display at each table and provided a variety of found objects and materials: fish tank gravel, fake leaves and flowers, fabric, yarn, and other materials in a variety of colors and textures. I divided students into small groups of three to four at each table.
I set the stage by explaining that their extraterrestrial creatures are friends, traveling in a spaceship that ran out of fuel and had to land on a strange planet. Using the materials at their stations, students had twenty minutes to transform the trifold cardboard display into the strange planet. After students designed their planets, I showed them the work of Sandy Skoglund, and we came up with a class definition and understanding of installation art.
Students arranged their creatures in their new environments and photographed the scene. I demonstrated using digital cameras and provided an instruction sheet for each group. I compiled the final photographs in a slideshow presentation to use as a reflection critique. As we looked at their photographs, students discussed their role in the project and the collaborative process.
Finishing with Stories
As a final task, students were given the creative freedom to tell their creature’s story. Student choice of format (comic book page, comic book strip, written story with illustrations, etc.) provided a variety of thoughtful stories. Through these narratives, the extraterrestrial creatures developed their own community and became more than just clay sculptures. Students had come together to bring this lesson to life.
Art teachers spark curiosity through lessons that encourage material exploration, play, and reflection. Young students create flower petal prints inspired by Andy Warhol, elementary students collaborate to tell stories through installation and photography, middle-school students reconsider material choices and embrace a curriculum that encourages play, high-school students create reflective artworks based on visual journaling exercises, and more.