Papier-mâché Pumpkins

Teaching Art

If you know me, follow me or ever met me, you are aware and often obnoxiously reminded of my love for Yayoi Kusama. As an art teacher, I have always wanted to create a student art exhibition of all Yayoi Kusama inspired artwork. So when I learned that my school hosts an annual Pumpkin Festival for our school and the local community, I began plotting.

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All of our Grade 2 students, which includes 200 kids, all constructed their own papier-mâché pumpkin sculpture inspired by the artwork of Yayoi Kusama. The enduring understanding for the unit was, ‘Artists make art to express their thoughts and feelings.’ Yayoi, using art as her medicine, uses repetitive mark making to cope with her mental illnesses. Incorporating vocabulary such as Shape, Form, Organic, Geometric, Pattern and Infinity Nets, Grade 2 students not only learned perseverance through the pumpkin making process but also practiced talking about their art and their artmaking – an opportunity which I think is often missed in primary art education programs. Below is an outline of the step-by-step process toward creating the pumpkins sculptures but I must warn you, if you plan to participate in this pumpkin project be prepared to experience potential highs and lows throughout the process.

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Preparing the Pumpkin Form

To create the pumpkin form, balloons were blown up for each student. If you can, procure an air compressor to speed up this long-winded part of the project. Make sure to really tie the balloons extra tight to ensure that they do not deflate too soon. Also, different balloons have different elasticity backed on their size and age. Balloons, not blown-up all the way, allow for the rubber bands to push into them more so the indentations are more prominent. With that said, the rubber bands move more easily which can create a problem in the early stages. Balloons that are more taunt and feel tighter, the rubber bands will stay on easier but the indentations are not pronounced.

Pumpkin Forms

We had students put their own rubber bands on in partner pairs – one stretched the rubber band while the other person held the balloon and helped wrap the rubber band around the bottom. This is challenging for kids but they CAN do it. Just be prepared for a few popped balloons and some rubber band flingage.

Papier-mâché-ing

I have always used flour and water for my papier-mâché mixture but due to Hong Kong’s humidity, I thought I should use watered down latex glue instead. BIG MISTAKE! After the first layer, with 200 kids mind you, the balloons stuck to the latex glue and as the balloon shrunk so did the entire pumpkin forms looking like real pumpkins come Thanksgiving – a shriveled, shrunken patch of pumpkins! DISASTROUS! RIP the first batch of the papier-mâché pumpkin patch.

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After some screaming and repetitive head-banging against a wall, I returned to my old stand-by – GLUTEN! Students started over and they successfully applied three layers of flour and water based papier-mâché to create a strong pumpkin form. Due to my allotted class time (40 minutes per lesson), students worked together on one pumpkin with a partner and then the next lesson switched. The third lesson they papier-mâché their own. This made sure that the forms were strong enough if the balloon began to delate.

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Teaching STEM – LITERALLY!

For the stem, students used newspaper and masking tape. By scrunching the newspaper, folding it in half leaving the two ends out before wrapping the shaft with tape, students taped the stem down and then applied a layer of papier-mâché.

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Pumpkin Painting

To help cover the newspaper print, students applied a layer of gesso to their entire pumpkin, allowed it to dry and then painted it one solid color. We mixed our own paint colors for students to ensure the colors were rich and varied.

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Lastly, students drew guidelines on their pumpkins and then used the line to guide the painting of their polka dots.

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Students also had the choice to paint their stem, polkify it or leave it one color. Painting uniform dots is not easy and students needed a lot of guidance and reminding about how to be successful. Last but not least, the pumpkins were coated with a thin layer of varnish to help protect them from the humidity.

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Storage & Management

Each class painted their class one color which helped for the organization of the pumpkins. Also, be prepared not to see your floor for several weeks as the pumpkins take up a lot of space! We found it helpful to use masking tape name tags which were used to place next to the drying pumpkins, stuck on once dry if needing to be moved and later writing names and class codes on the bottom. Large moving bags worked great for later storage, moving and returning the pumpkins to the classes. We see students once every 3 days for a 40-minute lesson, note that this project spanned 1 and half months (about 10 lessons = 6 to 7 hours) but can go faster with a smaller group. 

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Polka Time

The real power of the pumpkins is having them displayed collectively. Like Kusama’s artwork, the repeated forms and patterns presented together provides a punchy and dynamic display. Although visually appealing and producing Instagram worthy pics, this project is challenging nor can be done quickly. Heed my warning, it is messy, it is smelly, it is long and sometimes scary but like we teach our students, if you persevere, great things will happen! Like Yayoi, greatness came from such perseverance and we now have the artwork to prove it!

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P.S. The reading of this blog post can double as a drinking game. Every time you read ‘Pumpkin’ you drink or every time you read a clever alliteration, you drink! After the positively preposterous pumpkins making process, you’re gonna need a drink…DRINK!

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