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Basics of Innovative Wire Sculpture

Subject:

Art  

Grades:

2, 3, 4, 5  

Title – Teaching Innovative Wire Sculpture 
By – Elizabeth Berrien
Primary Subject – Art
Grade Level – 2-5

Wire Art vs. Wire Sculpture:

The term “wire art” makes me twinge. Granted, working with wire is an art. But the term feels dumbed down. Perhaps some teachers don’t think younger students can handle the word “sculpture”? Hogwash! If you’ve been calling it “wire art”, please respect the medium and start addressing it by its proper name, “wire sculpture”. To re-educate the neurons as to proper terminology, your students’ first project can be to create the words WIRE SCULPTURE in wire. Assign each student to create one or more letter of the words WIRE SCULPTURE. Staple or tape the finished letters onto a backing to form the words. Post this noble first creation for the students to see as they work on other wire projects, and they’re on their way!

 

MATERIALS:

        With apologies to chain art stores that sell a wide array of fancy pliers and wires, I must speak heresy: Most of what I’ve seen for “wire art supplies” appears grossly over-priced and over-packaged. Be especially suspicious of anything sold as “Sculpture Wire”, usually packaged in shockingly small quantity at several times its bulk cost.

“Paddle Wire”

      HOT TIP:

Phone company often donates colorful phone wire for class projects!

      Folks, ALL Wire is Sculpture Wire! The best and cheapest wire in the chain art stores is over in the floral department, sold as florist wire or paddle wire. Your materials budget will go quite a bit further if you make your first selections at the hardware store. For just a few dollars, you can get a voluptuous roll of dark annealed “tie wire” aka baling wire or bailing wire. It’s nice and cheap, but may leave a smudgy layer of machine oil on the hands. It also comes in a silvery, galvanized version, much easier to clean up. Don’t fret if you can’t find exactly the color of wire you’re looking for – wire sculpture projects can be painted different colors when they’re finished.
      Ask the hardware guys and gals to show you the rack of wire assortments in the picture wire section. You’ll find more of the dark annealed and galvanized wire, plus copper, brass, and aluminum. Look around a little more, and you’ll find wire clothesline coated in colored plastic. Craft supply stores have beading wire in lots of shiny colors. Store-bought electrical wire is expensive, sold by the foot. By exploring salvage yards and recycle centers, you stretch your materials buddget and teach your students the value of recycling.
    For cross-over educating, students in grades 5-12 can compare the costs per foot of different kinds of wire, depending on the manufacturer and type of packaging. You may also point out that some of the most expensive “sculpture wire” comes in ridiculously small amounts with excessive amounts of non-recyclable packaging.

TOOLS:

      Wire cutters of a size to fit the hand comfortably. That’s all, folks! I used a pair of Sears Craftsman $10.00 wire cutters to make most of the sculptures on my www.wirelady.com web site. Sure, every year or so I break a pair… and Sears replaces them for free, earning my sincere endorsement!
      For wire sculpture workshops and classes, I set out one or two pairs of wire cutters per table of students. Cutting wire is not a major part of the process, and it’s always good to encourage sharing.
      As for pliers, skip ‘em, they’re just a crutch. I prefer not to use pliers at all; they just get in the way. My own two hands are the only shaping tools for every sculpture in my web site. The only use I have for pliers is to grab those wire bits that are too short to handle with my fingers alone. Your students will develop their own unique style faster if they don’t use any pliers at all. No fancy store-bought jigs, either – the kids’ nimble fingers can do the shaping, and they will gain a strong sense of pride and empowerment from seeing what they make without fancy equipment.

SAFETY: The One Wire Sculpture Rule Written in Stone –

          DON’T PUT YOUR EYE OUT!
          Safety glasses are a good idea, but they’re not 100% effective. A long, loose end of rogue wire can still whip around and through the ventilation holes in the side of the glasses. This is why I recommend students work with foot-long, “pipe-cleaner: lengths of wire.
          So cut it small, about 12-inch lengths – Or start with pipe cleaners. THIS IS A SAFETY MEASURE. I worry about the long length of those store-boughten “twisties” – an impulsive or excited kid whipping on of those around might accidently put out someone’s eye. Especially at the beginning, students working with wire should be supervised closely to ensure that they handle it safely and with respect. Any student that waves a wire about should be gently shown the correct way to control it.
          Once students develop a reliable proximity sense and control of the wire, you may consider gradually increasing the lengths they work with. But be careful out there… even after decades working wire, I still have occasional scary scrapes and pokes with overly excessive lengths of wire.
        Long-term wire sculptors sometimes experience carpal tunnel inflammations from repeatedly handling wire in the same motion. If one of your students gets totally immersed in wire sculpture, be sure they and their parents are aware of carpal tunnel issues. If your wire sculpture class lasts longer than an hour, have the kids take breaks to massage and stretch their hands, wiggle their fingers, or do other hand exercises to keep their carpals healthy.

THREE WIRE EXERCISE:

          The purpose of this exercise is to introduce students to the feel of wire, and to show them how many different and innovative things they can do with a very limited number of strands. Once they have mastered the three wire exercise, students may work with ever-increasing quantities of wire.
          Before class begins, prepare quantities of 12-inch lengths of soft wire. Telephone wire is fun, and lends itself well. Working with different-color strands helps the student see what is going on, and where each wire leads within a sculpture. Copper and steel wire are good, too.
          Distribute three strands of wire per student, and one or two wire cutters per table. Students may wish to swap different color wires back and forth.
          Enourage students to focus on seeing how many different things they can do with just three wires. They can doodle around, making little cartoon figures. Or, if there’s something they enjoy looking at, a flower or a bug, have them look at it very closely and see if they can make something like it out of the wire.
          Often, you can promote creative innovation by asking the student to decide what their strongest interest is – people? animals? sports cars? Encourage them to really look at the objects they enjoy, and observe a few important aspects to try and get down in wire.
          A tip for students who want to make animal sculptures: many wildlife artists subscribe to “Ranger Rick” magazine for its wealth of high-quality animal images.
          If you have an assortment of different kinds of wire, encourage your students to try the three wire exercise with different types. Copper, including plastic coated telephone wire, is soft and pliable. This may make it easier to shape. It may also make it a little harder to hold together as a structure..
        For a real kicker, reward the kids at the end of class with 3 more wires each, to carry in a pocket. I call these “fidget wires” and tell the kids that sooner or later, they can blow their parents’ minds: just wait til the next time they’re stuck and bored. In a long line, in a waiting room, on a long drive… as long as they have “fidget wires” to put together and take back apart, the time will fly – and their parents will be amazed at their ability to conquer boredom creatively!

THE CREATIVE PROCESS – WIRE INTO ART:

          Some wire workshops suggest starting students off by making a drawing, then laying wire on it and pushing it around and shaping til it conforms to the image. I don’t endorse this method of teaching. The forced conformity takes away from the potential for spontaneous learning, and the “pencil first” method interferes with the eye-brain-hand connection and stunts the creative process.
          By the same token, your students will be more adventurous and innovative if you encourage them to work from scratch instead of copying another wire sculptor’s creation. Students that go on to become professional artists will benefit from being taught early respect for other artists’ copyrights. They are more likely to take pride in creating a personal style instead of appropriating somebody else’s.
          When I conduct a wire workshop, I distribute 3 of the 12″ strands of phone wire per student, with the simple directive: “mess with it”. I do NOT say, “this is the way to do it”, this restricts them from the get-go. Left to their own innate inventiveness, a class of 25 students given total creative rein may invent 25 new and different methods of wire sculpture with just those three wires. The field is that wide open!
          I tell the kids to loop, twist, wrap, or mangle their three wires around til they like it. After awhile, if they think they can do better, they take it apart and do something else with the same wire: recycling as they go! At the end of the session, the class has a diverse assortment of fantastic looking creations and a true sense of accomplishment.
          As students “mess with the wire”, their hands will make decisions for them. Their fingers may connect the wire as they loop, snag, twist, braid or kink the wires to hold them in place as they work on their “wire drawings”. As they train themselves to draw with wire instead of ink, their hands will invent new ways to handle wire.
        Students’ first wire sculpture projects may be really flimsy, and they may think the works look clumsier than they want. You probably felt that way the first time you tried to draw with a pencil or crayon, too.

“Picasso’s Cat”:

          This is my first wire sculpture. I made it in high school, back in 1968. Can you tell it’s a cat? The head’s that jumble at the bottom of the image. And I only gave it three toes! Lucky my parents saved it for me, I would’ve thrown it out!
          Lots of artists wish they’d saved those early efforts, so they could see how far they’ve come. Have your students set aside their early works so they have a little “research trail” of their evolution as wire sculptors.
          Tell your students, “If you think you can do better, you have the potential to become an innovative wire sculptor too!”
          Have older students pay attention to how different wires feel in their hands. Is there a texture, smooth or rough, that they really enjoy? For instance, steel will have a different feel than copper. Try thin wires, also thicker wires. Which feel better to hold and to shape?
          Encourage your students to follow their intuition, spending more time with the wire they really like. Don’t let them totally reject the wire they like less, though. Store it for the future. Tell them, instead of thinking, “that wire doesn’t work for me”, think, “that wire doesn’t work for me… yet!” Once they have achieved mastery of their “personal wire”, they’ll discover that other kinds of wire are much easier to work with.
          More advanced students can ponder the structural aspects of wire sculpture – how many different ways can they attach the wire to itself, and how strong or weak are the results? What happens when they combine two or more different thickness or types of wire? Can a kinked wire be straightened again?
        Any time a student is just not satisfied with what they make, it’s okay to start over. With practice, it’ll come faster and smoother, their creations will get more like they intended. But they’ll be surprised how much character even their startup squiggles have! Tell them to hang on to them, use them as minor ornaments around the house. Give some to family and friends as special gifts….

BASES FOR WIRE SCULPTURES:

          Putting student wire sculptures on wooden bases seems to be some kind of fad – I think someone’s K-12 wire workshop website suggests it. I question the need to complicate matters by mounting wire sculptures on wooden blocks. Adding a wood base can be interesting, but it also adds complications and hurdles to the students’ spontaneity. Wood bases have to be sanded, finished, etc. An adult must drill a hole and affix the wire sculpture to the wood base. Wirework is much more powerfully rewarding when students can construct the entire project with their own two hands. The solid bulk of a wood base often interferes visually with the open airiness of the wire sculpture. I recommend skipping wood bases whenever possible.
          Are bases absolutely essential? There’s no written-in-stone that says so… Unmounted wire projects can be ornaments, jewelry, free-standing or hanging wire sculpture, mobiles. Anything goes!
          If a base is absolutely called for, have the student make one out of wire. A wire base looks much more in harmony, and is easier to manage for students who want to start working with wire at home.
          For display purposes, sculptures without bases can be attached securely to pedestals by stapling.

 

(c) 2005 Elizabeth Berrien.

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