Soap carving is an easy, inexpensive, and pleasant-smelling way for students to try subtractive sculpture!
I piloted this project with my Art Club to determine where students might struggle with the process. I also wanted to see if the end results would actually look like tikis before extrapolating it to a full class project. The students were engaged, the projects were successful, and as an added bonus the classroom smelled fresh and clean!
WE BEGAN THIS PROJECT by researching the history of tikis and looking up images online. Since most students were familiar with how tikis look, but not their origin, we took time to look up information about Polynesia, the birthplace of tikis.
Once students had sufficient background knowledge on tikis, we had to tackle the difference between additive and subtractive sculpture. Throughout their elementary art careers, the students had many opportunities to create additive sculptures, but this was their first subtractive sculpture.
Since subtractive sculpture is a complex process, I found tikis to be a good subject matter for their first attempt. Tikis are essentially rectangular, so students wouldn’t have to make major alterations to the shape of a bar of soap and could focus more on creating raised and recessed features.
Handouts containing images of typical tiki foreheads, eyebrows, eyes, noses, and mouths aided students in designing their tikis (see A&A Online). They easily and quickly sketched out their ideas on paper before they were given soap or carving tools.
Once their designs were completed, we went over the tools they would be using. I found that I didn’t need to purchase any new ones for this project; I just wiped off my ceramics needle and loop tools, and used toothbrushes previously used for painting. I demonstrated how to use the loop tool to shave the soap, the needle tool to draw, and the toothbrush to wipe away crumbs and buff the soap.
The soap was thick enough that students were able to practice using the tools on the back of their bar before flipping it over to start their final carving. I highly recommend using Ivory brand soap. It is soft enough to be carved easily and does not crumble like some cheaper soaps.
Having some carved soap tikis on hand for students to look at proved essential for a successful carving experience. They were able to see the height levels of the features. Without the samples, students were initially just drawing onto their soap with the needle tool. After seeing a sample, however, they were able to better understand how to make their features either raised or recessed.
THE MOST DIFFICULT ELEMENT for my students was accepting that once something was carved away it could not be reattached. We had an impromptu discussion on the importance of being flexible with your idea once you realize the limitations of your material. I had one student who needed to restart completely after he carved a little too aggressively. I would budget having 10% more soap than you need for instances like this.
The decision whether to paint their tikis was left up to each student. Some were attracted to the bright colors of some tikis, and chose to paint theirs with acrylics. Others wanted to be able to display their tikis in their bathrooms as soap, and therefore chose to leave them their natural color.
This project was the perfect introduction to subtractive sculpture for my students. It was affordable, doable, my students loved the process, and they were happy with their results. In fact, for the end of the quarter art reflection, most of them selected the soap carved tikis as their favorite project. It is definitely my most favorite-smelling art project!
Middle school students will …
• learn about the history and origin of tikis.
• demonstrate an understanding of subtractive sculpture.
• carve a tiki from soap.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Conceiving and developing artistic ideas and work
• Ivory soap
• Clay carving tools: needle, loop, etc.
• Pencils, paper
• Acrylic painting supplies (optional)
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Katherine Richards, NBCT, is an art teacher at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield, Illinois.
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