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Not Just Pieces of Wood | Arts & Activities
Oct 2018

Not Just Pieces of Wood

Not Just Pieces of Wood

There is no better time than during the elementary school years to begin cultivating compassion and respect for all people, past and present. Art endures, merging the histories of diverse cultures.

When we guide students in their application of visual thinking strategies, we ask them to consider an artwork or an artist’s methods and reasoning. In doing so, we are also encouraging admiration and respect of all peoples. This lesson, “Not Just Pieces of Wood,” inspired by the Native American artist George Morrison (1919–2000), accomplishes this.

Born in Chippewa City, Minnesota, George Morrison was a member of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, and spent much of his childhood along the shores of Lake Superior. Morrison said that he drew inspiration for his wood collages from his memories of the lake, the rock and the driftwood formations along its north shore.

This lesson was inspired by my first encounter with Morrison’s wood collage, Collage IX: Landscape, displayed in the Minneapolis Museum of Art. The piece reminded me of my own childhood along Lake Michigan, picking up driftwood, feeling the smooth surfaces, examining the grain lines and water-sculpted contoured edges, and imagining its origins. I knew my third-graders would find inspiration in Morrison’s use of wood for their printmaking.

Morrison is recognized as having been a leader in opening the public’s eyes to the wider reality of Native American art. He is respected as a vibrant force in contemporary art. Thus, this lesson asks students to consider the big question: “What is Native American Art?”  

Many online sources are available for collecting information on Morrison. In preparation for this lesson, I put together a PowerPoint and flip chart with pictures of the artist, his wood collages and other works of art. The presentation also included photos of actual pieces of wood to acquaint students with wood’s varied natural grain lines and textures.

I also passed out scraps of wood to my students, which I had collected from my walks along Lake Michigan and other sources, so that students could examine actual wood grains and texture, looking for line designs.

The lesson began with students applying watercolor washes (in all directions) on large pieces of drawing paper, which would later be used as our printing paper. These were then put on the rack to dry.

Next, students viewed the PowerPoint presentation and discussed George Morrison’s work, Collage IX-Landscape in particular. We compared and discussed differences in wood textures and the lines as we passed around the wood scraps. Students then practiced drawing wood-grain lines on sketch paper.

The next day, students lightly drew wood-grain lines on 4″ x 6″ foam printing plates. Once satisfied with them, they pressed firmly over their lines to create deeper impressions, being careful not to cut through the foam. (Sometimes this is bit tricky, so I put wide masking tape on the backside of the plates to help reinforce them.)

As I demonstrated how to ink the incised foam plate and then create a print, I explained that the impressed lines will not print (negative space), but the rest of the plate will receive and transfer the ink to the paper. The students were fascinated by the process.

It was time for the students to make their prints. First, they applied ink to their printing plates with brayers. When the plates were sufficiently inked, they lined their prints up by setting the plates (ink side down) on an edge of their painted print paper (any edge will do). Then, holding the paper and printing plate securely together, they flipped them over and thoroughly rubbed the paper on top of the inked plate. Of course, the children got very excited when they pulled their paper to expose the prints!

They repeated inking and printing until the entire printing paper was filled. Any areas that were too small for the full plate impressions were then filled with impressions made by cutting the original plate into medium and then smaller pieces. Students could stop there and have wonderful “wood-grain prints” (I shared some of Morrison’s wood grain prints for examples).

In the final step, after the prints were dry, students cut them apart and experimented with placement of the “wood pieces” before gluing them down onto a sheet of black construction paper. I suggested there be no more than “pinky width” between the printed shapes. Some students left their pieces large and others enjoyed the challenge of cutting them down and then fitting them together. After all their pieces were glued in place, the students signed their work with a light colored pencil.

We also completed a class collage, where everyone contributed a print, which we glued onto one large board.  The piece was entered at the Minnesota State Fair, and we won first place! The students were so proud of themselves and everyone else was quite impressed. What a success! 




The children’s prints were inspired by the wood collages of Native American artist George Morrison (1919–2000).


On 4″ x 6″ foam printing plates, students drew and incised wood-grain lines. Prints were made on painted paper, and once dry, the prints were either left intact or cut apart, often following the lines present in the “wood grain.”


Elementary students will …
identify textures and patterns used in Minnesota Native American artwork.
create a variety of lines in their artwork.
use line to express their ideas.
reproduce real and visual texture.

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.

Foam printing plates, black water-based printing ink, brayers, ink trays
12″ x 18″ medium-weight drawing paper
12″ x 18″ black construction paper
Watercolor paints, large paintbrushes
Elmer’s Glue-All multi-purpose liquid glue
Graphite pencils, colored pencils
Wide masking tape
Drying rack
Paper to cover tables, baby wipes

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Cynthia McGovern teaches art at Kenny Community School, Minneapolis Public Schools, and is an adjunct professor at Hamline University.


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