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“Eco-Culture” Totem Poles | Arts & Activities
Jan 2018

“Eco-Culture” Totem Poles

“Eco-Culture” Totem Poles

Who do we share the earth with? What do we know about our non-human neighbors? How can we pay tribute to nature? This engaging interdisciplinary unit seeks to answer these questions by having students create clay totem poles as a visual narrative of our complex and beautiful world.

Students, driven by their own personal interest, choose an ecosystem to research and then dive into the flora, fauna and geography of that particular part of the world.

Our school was lucky enough to have a local ceramics artist, Shane Bryant (www.greenvillearts.com/artist/shane-bryant/), come to my art classes and help students create their clay sculptures. Assisted by Shane and me, students rolled out their clay slabs and constructed the cylinder where they would sculpt their low- and high-relief elements.

Students made a rectangle slab, wrapped it around an old soda can, and then rolled and scored-and-slipped it together.


Sketching out their ideas helped students plan out their compositions and made for strong finished artwork.


High-relief and low-relief elements were added on the clay cylinders by either drawing into the clay or adding to it with more clay.


Sketches were used as reference as students turned their drawings into three-dimensional sculptures.

The day was then spent carving small animals, banana leaves, and other visual symbols. Special attention was paid to texture, such as that of a lizard, sand or sunflower. Though some students had to adapt or simplify their original sketch ideas, all of the final cylinders resembled little sculptural biomes.

The clay work was allowed to dry and then bisque-fired in the kiln. Students coated their fired cylinders with red iron oxide and a clear glaze to mimic the natural look inspired by totem poles in the Pacific Northwest.

As a class, we had fun deciding whether we wanted our totem poles to be traditional-looking or more contemporary. That’s one of the great things about totems: they can look like our naturally inspired final product, or they can be much more expressive in color and narrative, if that fits the installation space.

The courtyard outside the art room underwent a wonderful transformation with 100-plus little cylinders mounted in four, 6-foot-high totem poles. They stand tall in all weather and are enjoyed by past and current students.

My favorite moment during this project came after the installation and the school’s dedication ceremony for them. With faculty, students and families in attendance, the students eagerly searched for their artistic contributions and excitedly showed them off! The children joyfully demonstrated their knowledge of key science concepts, as well as visual arts, for an authentic audience.

Eco-Culture Totem Poles are a manageable and achievable art installation. I love the emphasis on a student-driven process—choosing their own research topic and creating sketches that come to life through clay. Beck Academy’s “Eco-Culture” Totem Poles are a thoughtful and permanent beautification, and I know they are and will be enjoyed by everyone who sees them! 


Encourage students to both carve into the clay and add on to the clay for high- and low-relief dimension. The toucan, starfish, and bear seen on this pole really stand out and encourage the viewer to step closer.


This assignment is a great time to discuss texture. This elaborate tropical cylinder has strong texture all over it.


By using red iron oxide and clear glaze, the eco-culture totem poles have a natural look of bone or wood.


I like how this elephant’s head projects off the totem and the rest of his body is hidden behind the grass texture on the cylinder.Great perspective and use of dimension!


I worked with the plant engineer at our school to find a place where the totems could be both enjoyed and safe. Schools are an active place, so the courtyard outside my art room was a great selection for more manageable traffic control and viewing of the sculptures. All four poles were placed within the school landscaping and blended in perfectly with their surroundings. It’s like they were always there!


Middle-school students will …
• create a sketch that integrates the non-human elements of a particular part of the world—flora, fauna and geography.
• create a cylinder structure with clay using basic hand building that incorporates texture and low-relief techniques.
• connect their knowledge from their state science standards in interpreting diverse non-human elements.

• Creating: Conceiving, developing, conceptualizing, organizing, generating, refining and completing artistic ideas and/or work.
• Presenting: Selecting, analyzing, developing, interpreting, refining, sharing and conveying meaning for/through the presentation of artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.Perceiving and analyzing artistic work.Interpreting intent and meaning in artistic work. Applying criteria to evaluate artistic work.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context. Synthesizing and relating knowledge and personal experiences to make art. Relating artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

• Compare the characteristic structures of various groups of plants.
• Explain how environmental stimuli cause physical responses in animals.

Sixth-graders will be using their knowledge from their science classes in plant groupings and animal environments as the base of their research for this project. They will be assigned a part of the world and will need to know the flora and fauna from this part of the world in order to create a work that abstractly exhibits these elements.

Based on class of 25 students:
• Sketchbooks, pencils
• Books and other resources for research
• White stoneware clay (50 lbs)
• Clay tools, red iron oxide, clear glaze
• Rebar
• Water and water containers

• Composition
• Flora
• Fauna
• Totems
• Symbolism
• Texture
• Low-Relief
• High-Relief

Art teacher Carlon Steller is the art department chair at Beck Academy, an International Baccalaureate school that teaches from a worldly perspective, located in Greenville, S.C.


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