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May 2017

Junk-Mail Fish: An Environmental Art Collage Project

Junk-Mail Fish: An Environmental Art Collage Project

Got junk mail? Yeah, we all do! Ads for pizza and burgers, catalogs for gadgets and clothes … Most junk mail gets thrown out, though some of it gets recycled. Why not turn it into eye-catching art instead?

As Director of ArtReach at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, Md., I team up with local environmental nonprofits to teach a project called “Junk- Mail Fish.” Over the past five years, I have worked with over 1,300 school children.

This past year, I also taught a family art workshop at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. Kids and parents worked together. Working with families was wonderful: when children see their parents engaged with art-making, they realize that art is important.

Junk-Mail Fish uses old manila folders and colorful bits of junk mail in a combination drawing/collage project. The project calls attention to important environmental issues, and also develops key visual arts skills in children, such as hand-eye coordination, color interaction, and design. Participants may work independently or collaborate with others.

The lesson begins with viewing diagrams and photographs of fish as I provide a brief explanation of fish anatomy. I then pass out manila folder halves, on which the fish will be drawn. Since it’s important for the fish to fill up most of the paper, I demo the drawing portion of the project and have students follow along with me.

I keep directions to a minimum, though, because I want people to feel free to experiment. I let them know that there are thousands of different species of fish in the world (more than 350 in the Chesapeake Bay alone!) of all sizes and shapes, so their fish will look just fine. If more direction is needed, an illustrated instruction sheet is available on A&A Online (artsandactivities.com/editorial/aa-online).

Once the LINE DRAWINGS OF THE FISH have been completed, it’s time to cut them out. (Younger children may need adult help for some of the trickier areas.) Once the fish are cut out, it’s up to participants which direction they will be swimming: fish can be collaged on either side and it is fun to have fish swimming in different directions.

Glue sticks are best for  attaching bits of magazine, catalog or other junk mail to the fish. Paper can be cut, torn into pieces, or both. You might consider having students prepare their paper pieces beforehand so they have a stash to work with.

Work in sections rather than gluing bits of paper here and there. This ensures that the entire fish is covered and that there are no bare spots. Glue pieces so that they stick out past the borders of the fish. Once all the paper is attached, the fish is turned over for easy viewing and trimmed back to its original shape.

Everyone has fun choosing themes for their fish. I have seen students make cookie fish, sports fish, hair fish, high-fashion fish, holiday fish, word fish, fast-food fish, color-themed fish and more.

The other half of the manila folder becomes the background. Students can collage or paint the background in various shades of blue. At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, they used brayers to roll out acrylic colors to create an aquatic feel. After the paint dried, they glued their fish onto the background.

When done in a school setting, Junk-Mail Fish artworks can be joined together to form a giant ocean “quilt.” Students can participate in deciding how to group the fish. Pictures can be taped together on the back and the quilt edged with strips of colored paper. [Note that in a school setting, students may need two or three class periods to complete the project.]

It’s great for everyone to learn about the environment (including easy and valuable steps to take to safeguard it), learn about animal anatomy, and then create a work of art. Junk-Mail Fish quilts are dazzling and proof that a whole is more than a sum of its parts. True in nature and true in art! AAENDSIGN


Isabelle, age 7.



Trishia, adult.



Caitlin, age 16.


Students will …
• think and experiment through trial and error.
• develop ideas and knowledge about/empathy for the environment.
• collaborate and share with classmates.

• Creating: Generating and conceptualizing artistic ideas and work.
• Creating: Organizing and developing artistic ideas and work.
• Responding: Perceiving and analyzing artistic work.
• CONNECting: Synthesizing and relating knowledge and personal experiences to make art.

• Old manila folders, two per participant
• Pencils
• Magazines and catalogs
• Envelopes to hold paper scraps
• Scissors, glue sticks
• Acrylic paints in various shades of blue
• Paper or plastic plates
• Brayers (for applying paint)

aa-finalbitton60ONLINE EXTRAS
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Constance Del Nero is Director of ArtReach and Community Programs at Academy Art Museum in Easton, Md.


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