I was inspired to venture into the use of circuits and lighting after a session I attended at a local conference. That school year, my students made steampunk-inspired bugs (see SchoolArts, March 2020) that had the ability to light up, adding an extra dimension to the designs. After seeing the school community’s reactions to these light-up pieces of art, I knew that this was just a stepping stone for the next light circuit project.
Inspiration from Artist Michael Kagan
I reached out to Virginia Beach’s Museum of Contemporary Art to check which artists they were showcasing during the next couple of months. Their 2019 fall exhibition was based on outer space and the work of artist Michael Kagan. Kagan is a Virginia Beach native, so he was a great inspiration for this assignment.
Students viewed the art of Kagan, both in the classroom and on a field trip to see his exhibit. For some of my students, it was their first time visiting a professional gallery space. Their eyes lit up when they saw Kagan’s work, the details of his compositions, and the sheer size of his works.
Back in the Classroom
Students’ first step was to research and brainstorm. We paired with our library to help us through the use of books, digital sources, and online collections. Students researched the concept of outer space, as well as information about Kagan, and also how circuits were created. Next, they designed at least three thumbnail sketches for their final compositions. Their criteria consisted of three requirements: it had to connect to the concept of outer space, it needed to light up by the use of circuits, and it needed to be 2D.
I feel there needs to be constraints in an assignment, but we shouldn’t be telling students exactly what to do—let students be artists and be inspired to create how they envision their ideas.
Sketches Come to Life
Using their sketches, students then had a choice as to the type of surface they would like to use. Options included old records, wood, hardboard, and various kinds of paper. Each design was unique, so each surface that students chose reflected that. Students also had choice of media. We discussed which media would work best on certain surfaces.
Applying the Circuits
The last step after completion of the physical design was to add the circuits to power one to three bulbs in their piece. If they were able to create a circuit that lit one bulb, they could create circuits for additional lights.
To create the circuit, students used copper tape, a coin battery, an LED light, and clear tape. I showed them several YouTube videos that illustrated the construction of a simple paper circuit. I emphasized that a circuit needs to be complete, meaning it had to connect back around to itself. We talked about the negative and positive sides of the LED lights and batteries and how opposites attract. As soon as students were able to make their light shine, they could move on to help other students.
At the conclusion of this assignment, students had the opportunity to meet Kagan through an event the Museum of Componentry Art coordinated for our students. Kagan talked to students about art, space, and the importance of curiosity and exploration of the world around us. This was a wonderful closure for students—it gave them a chance to ask questions and become even more inspired as artists.
Students’ designs exceeded my expectations. They loved the idea of going beyond painting an outer space-inspired piece to creating an interactive piece for the viewer. Their artworks grab people’s attention, creating a collaboration and integration between, art, science, and technology.
Art teachers incorporate technology and new media into their lessons. Young students become subjects of historical American artworks through digital projection, elementary students create outer space-themed LED circuit-enhanced drawings, middle-school students research the art of printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu and design posters with powerful messages, high-school students digitally illustrate food recipe layouts, and more.