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Metallic Emoticon Mural | Arts & Activities
Jan 2018

Metallic Emoticon Mural

Metallic Emoticon Mural

One of my favorite ways to start my ceramics course is with a collaborative project that introduces and reviews clay construction techniques. I have both beginning and advanced ceramics students in the same period, so I love finding new ideas. I was excited when I saw inspiring artworks at Portland, Oregon’s Saturday Market.

Sculptor Andrew Lonnquis of Olander Earthworks had a booth displaying his expressive spherical cement cast heads. While some of his face sculptures were free standing, others were mounted on beautiful cross-grain cut squares of wood. Seeing these artworks sparked an idea for a ceramic and wood emoticon collaborative mural.

To start the unit, I showed a PowerPoint featuring Andrew Lonnquis’ work. Students then brainstormed a list of emotions. To get further ideas, some students researched ideas from photographs of people showing different facial expressions or looked at emoticons. We discussed how one’s whole face changes as it expresses different emotions.

Students then made small sketches of different expressions. To finish their planning, each did a larger, more detailed sketch of their favorite expression that included at least six additive features. and possibly cutouts for greater relief. They also indicated where they would add at least one texture to add visual interest to their emoticon-inspired heads.

Students were excited to work with clay. I demonstrated how to construct a basic pinch pot. I also showed students how to create a smooth outer surface on their pinch pot by lightly tapping it using a wood paddle. They loved learning this, as it is a great way to remove the dents created by the pinching.

The next key step was teaching them how to firmly attach features with the technique I call “S.S.B.S.” (Score, Slip, Blend, Smooth). I emphasized the importance of using a sharp tool for Scoring, watery clay Slip for gluing, a modeling tool for Blending, and their finger or sponge for Smoothing.

Students were successful at creating dynamic relief faces. The results were varied, as their artworks showed many different emotions and some artworks clearly reflected the personalities, interests or style of the student who created it.

After their artworks were dried and fired, students glazed their sculptures with dark metallic glaze and they were fired again. Their sculptures were ready for the wood backing.

At the lumberyard, I carefully chose a beam that included the center of the tree rings. Two of my district’s career and technical education teachers, helped me cut the beam into 5/8-inch slabs and construct black framing for the finished mural. Student sanded and clear coated the 5.5″ x 5.5″ pieces to seal and showcase the cross-grain of the wood. (The cross-grain wood beam gave beautiful results, but was definitely more difficult to cut than a regular piece of lumber.)

The finished ceramic pieces were attached to the wood using a caulking gun loaded with clear construction adhesive. By having all students use a metallic finish mounted on the same size wood pieces, the overall installation had a unified, professional look. The mural gets rave reviews as many people see it in its permanently installed location: in the main office of our school.

While I did this collaborative project with high school students, it could easily be adapted to suit middle school or elementary students. This unit was a great way to introduce clay constructing, as it included the pinch-pot technique and other key steps to make a strong and creative clay artwork. 


Each student created a unique facial expression for his or her emoticon sculpture.


A bit of the students’ personalities can be seen in their masks.


The mural gets rave reviews as many people see it in its permanently installed location: the main office of our school.


High-school students will …
• interpret an emotion in sculptural form.
• implement basic ceramic construction techniques.
• consider public art and its place in the community.
• create a sculpture to be displayed as a part of a group mural.

• 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.

• Clay (about 2/3 lb. per student)
• Clay tools, slip, metallic glaze
• Canvas mats/Boards
• Plastic bags
• Wood square for each student (squares were approximately 5.5″ x 5.5″ x 5/8″)
• Clear sealant, construction adhesive
• Wood backing with frame to mount and display finished pieces
• Zbar brackets to securely mount mural

Tracy Fortune teaches ceramics at Lakes High School, in Lakewood, Washington.


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