Biomorphism is an art movement that began in the 20th century. It models artistic design elements on naturally occurring patterns or shapes reminiscent of nature and living organisms. Taken to its extreme, it attempts to force naturally occurring shapes onto functional devices. In ceramics, we see a great deal of this in both sculptural and functional forms.
Incorporating the concepts of biomorphism into a seventh-grade clay project proved to be a fun and exciting venture for both my students and me. It also provided me with an opportunity to show them some of the porcelain sculptures I was currently working on for an upcoming solo exhibition.
In making their own biomorphic creations in clay, they were able to explore the process of building a sculpture based on direct observation of a realistic organic object. Adding their creative ideas, students were able to transform their sculptures by morphing it into something new.
Some of the ways in which students abstracted their clay representations included changing the proportions of a specific part, combining features from a couple or several different organic objects to make a new one, or choosing an unpredictable color while glazing.
The diverse and exciting solutions they developed while working led me to stop the class and lead a discussion on how their lifelike representations were becoming abstract. The group discussion was important in that it helped them understand the difference between realistic works of art and nonrepresentational. It also helped them to grasp the concept of “biomorphic.”
Day 1: The lesson began with a discussion about the “Biomorphism” art movement and examples by a few of the artists involved—Jean Arp, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. We also talked about the ways in which artists, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, take objects from nature and abstract them. I explained how these artists derived most of their ideas from the natural world and the human body simultaneously (shells, pebbles, bones, etc.).
We then viewed a variety of contemporary ceramic artists who worked biomorphically, including the sculptural forms of Mary Rogers, Sandy Byers, Geoffrey Swindell, Lindsay Feurer, and some of my own recent biomorphic ceramic works.
The PowerPoint presentation I put together also discussed the biomorphic qualities of my ceramic sculptures, and pointed out the methods of construction that I used and connected them to the hand building techniques they would be learning: pinch, coil, slab and draping.
Day 2: On the second day, I shared a collection of organic objects including acorns, conch shells, dried pods, small gourds and so on. Students each selected one of the organic objects to draw and use as the basis of their sculpture.
As they drew the organic object from life, the students were encouraged to take another object and merge it into the original one to create a new biomorphic form.
Day 3: I demonstrated how to use the pinch method to form two hollow pots. Students worked while I assisted them pointing out the importance of keeping just the thumb in the center. Having a tendency of leaving the pots extra thick, I assist the students to try to get them to pinch out all the extra clay out of the bottom and the sides of the pots stressing the importance of even walls throughout.
Day 4: I demonstrated how to score and slip the two pinch pots together. Once they have a basic form resembling that of their organic object, I showed them how to use a small wooden paddle in case they decided to alter their forms further.
I then allowed some time for students to work independently while they developed their imaginative ideas further for their biomorphic creations. Some students stuck to their original idea, while others let new ideas spontaneously flow while morphing their forms into something new. Some students expressed interest in transforming parts of their projects into flowers so I taught them how to feather the edges of their pot, a technique I often use in my own ceramic art.
Day 5: I introduced them to the coil method and we discussed the various ways in which coils could be used for sections of their sculptures like stems or as decorations on the surface.
Day 6: A demonstration on surface decoration was given. Using small sgrafitto tools, I taught students how to enhance their form by carefully carving out small designs or marks, when repeated created rich surface textures. Other students chose to use a pencil or the back end of a paintbrush to embellish their sculpture with texture.
Last, students were reminded to make sure that a small hole was put in an inconspicuous place on their sculpture and that their initials were carved clearly on the bottom of their pieces
Day 7: Once bisque fired, students selected colors to glaze their projects. Mayco Stroke N Coat glazes offer a great variety of vibrant colors that the students love. When selecting a glaze, students were reminded to choose colors and paint designs that enhanced the aesthetic quality of their sculptural form.
Final Thoughts on Lesson: One of the most difficult parts of this assignment for students was coming up with an idea for this project. Although the collection of organic objects that I brought in sparked many new ideas, some students still struggled to come up with a design that they were happy with while drawing.
I would recommend that it is important to let those students know that they can still create something very unique while they are working with the clay. I would remind them that some artists like to pre-plan their designs very carefully while others like to be more spontaneous while they work. There is no wrong or right way to be creative!
Middle-school students will …
• learn about the “Biomorphism” art movement, and artists Jean Harp, Henri Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
• explore how artists get ideas, and investigate the formal influence of said theme in creating a ceramic work
• learn about contemporary ceramic artists who are working in the genre of “Organic Abstraction.”
• create an idea or theme in more than one medium, interpret 2-D art into a 3-D form, and create multiple solutions to visual arts problem.
• combine hand building techniques to create a sculptural form, demonstrate craftsmanship, explore surface decoration.
• select glaze for aesthetic quality to enhance sculptural form.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
• Sculpture clay
• Canvas mats or boards, newspaper, zip-lock plastic bags
• Scoring tools/forks, pin tools, assorted clay tools
• Blender slip
• Glazes, brushes
Brett Wallerstein teaches art at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. All photographs by Brett, except where indicated.
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