Posted by: dbjaquith | November 8, 2015

3D Design or Sculpture or Just Stuff?

A treehouse design, with the ladder arranged and ready to attach.

A treehouse design, with the ladder arranged and ready to attach.

Many (but not all) children love to construct things that represent the world around them. Buildings, vehicles, devices, furniture, games and sporting events are among the types of things that emerge in our 3D Design Studio. It’s a little like sculpture because, as the name suggests, the artwork is three-dimensional. But, unlike sculpture, the intent is to replicate an object that has a specific purpose or function, in this case, shelter and play. Making something that does something. This is what excites my students and is at the heart of design.

Fourth graders put their work away carefully to ensure it will remain intact until they return to the art classroom.

Fourth graders put their work away carefully to ensure it will remain intact until they return to the art classroom.

In the photo to the left, what appears to be a random grouping of objects is actually a very carefully arranged long-term art project. Fourth grade girls discovered that they could cut up pom poms, mix them with glue and leave them to dry in re-purposed watercolor pans. Their bakery concept emerged slowly but now they are moving full-steam ahead to consider how they will display their cakes. This activity involves inquiry, collaboration, and long-range planning, skills valued both in art class and beyond to other classrooms. The outcome of this work may tend more toward 3D design or more toward sculpture or simply a blend of both. Labels don’t matter to these artists – they are just happily engaged in an activity that challenges their creative and critical thinking skills.

Sculpture has its own purposes, different from design. When talking about sculpture with children I compare it to painting, as a media that can evoke a feeling or response from the viewer, communicate a perspective or tell a story. Sculpture is like a painting that you can walk around and see from all sides. We make sculptures out of clay, paper mache and plaster. Students understand this.

3D design often incorporates aspects of sculpture, bringing in the personal narrative, and vice versa. The treehouse design above offers a narrative about childhood, adventure and freedom. The sculptural tree below was lovingly created for the artist’s classroom teacher. One student conceived of the idea and persisted through complex construction issues to complete the project. Her classmates joined in, assisting with painting and assembly. A boy made all of the Origami apples which display each of the names of all the students in the class. This sculpture was constructed using the same materials found in the 3D Design Studio but serves a different purpose than design, celebrating the community that exists in the classroom.

In today’s art world, many contemporary artists have moved away from modernist classifications such as sculpture and design toward DIY and maker cultures. In the words of Lane Relyea (Your Everyday Art World, 2013): “Today the painting students, all of them, across the board, don’t say they’re painters. But they also don’t call themselves artists. ‘I do stuff’ is the most frequent response. Or, ‘I make stuff.’ All verb, no predicate. All open-ended adaptability and responsiveness, no set vocation.” So then why do these distinctions between sculpture and 3D Design matter when teaching elementary students? Because the non-art world moves at a far slower pace than the art world. For the majority of adults in these young people’s lives, art media labels continue to form a basis for much, if not all, of what they know and remember about art. Such labels are also in mainstream art education so that, when these students move on to middle and high school, it is likely that they will continue to study painting and design and sculpture. These terms offer students language to clarify and describe their work to others even if, among friends, they tell each other “I make stuff.”

The classroom tree with Origami apples, leaves and names of all the children in the class.

The classroom tree with Origami apples, leaves and names of all the children in the class.


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