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Calder's Contours

Follow the searching line technique used by Alexander Calder in his sculptures, mobiles, and paintings as you create an original portrait.

  • Grade 5
    Grade 6
    Grades 7 and 8
  • Multiple Lesson Periods
  • Directions

    1. Alexander Calder was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 22, 1898. Calder came from a long line of artists: his mother was a painter, and both his father and grandfather were noted sculptors. Although Calder is best known for his hanging sculptures (mobiles), he also created boldly colored floor sculptures (stabiles), as well as paintings and wire sculptures.
    2. Before Calder began creating his monumental mobiles and stabiles, he spent a great deal of time sketching people and animals in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. He had already graduated college, and was working as a commercial artist. Calder then took a job on a British freighter, which enabled him to earn his way to Paris, where he first exhibited his wire sculptures of a miniature circus (see Elephant, 1928).
    3. To create a drawing in the searching manner of Calder's wire sculptures, students begin with construction paper and a single, dark Crayola® Marker. Use a continuous line (a line that starts and ends only once in this drawing) to record the details of a human face. Have students look closely at the person they are drawing, move the marker in the same way the eye travels over the shapes that it sees. Repeat or correct a line, but never lift the marker or try to erase a line that has already been made!
    4. Students compare their drawing to Calder's wire sculptures (Medusa and Elephant). Note the similarity of the drawing to Calder's sculptures.
  • Standards

    LA: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

    LA: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

    LA: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

    SCI: Construct drawings or diagrams as representations of events or systems.

    SS: Explore factors that contribute to one's personal identity such as interests, capabilities, and perceptions.

    VA: Select media, techniques, and processes; analyze what makes them effective or not effective in communicating ideas; reflect upon the effectiveness of choices.

    VA: Describe and place a variety of art objects in historical and cultural contexts.

  • Adaptations

    Alexander Calder is best known for creating large mobiles with colorful shapes and are artfully balanced with heavy wire supports. Challenge students, individually or in teams of two, to create a mobile using Calder's manner by cutting several organic shapes from cardboard. Students paint the shapes in colors similar to those used by Calder. Balance and hang the shapes on a dowel stick or cardboard roll for the mobile effect. When complete, students write a summary paragraph describing how they incorporated their learning about Calder into their original mobiles.

    Students create original figures using chenille sticks bent to resemble animals in a circus, as Alexander Calder did. Begin by creating continuous line drawings; then use the drawings as the basis for sculptures. After taking digital photos of their figures, students will upload them to a classroom computer and audiotape an explanation of how Calder's techniques were incorporated into the figure.


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  • Creativity.
  • Capacity.
  • Collaboration.
  • Change.
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