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Symbolic Ceramic Totem Poles | Arts & Activities
Jan 2019

Symbolic Ceramic Totem Poles

Symbolic Ceramic Totem Poles

Like many art educators, I have struggled to find ways to provide new and engaging activities to help students make meaningful art and talk about it to their peers and teachers. Clay is an inexpensive and effective way to get students to openly communicate through their art what they may be feeling or experiencing.

In one of the art methods courses I teach at West Virginia University, I worked with area art teachers to create a lesson centered around having middle schoolers create symbolic ceramic totem pole sculptures. My students designed the lesson we piloted at a rural middle school, which included using clay to visually communicate their emotions.

The vocabulary words used in the project were shape, form and symbols through the concept of storytelling. The projects were successful as students reflected in their journals their artistic process, and later shared the meaning behind their totem pole symbols with their peers and teachers.

STARTING WITH A PRESENTATION on traditional totem poles, the students studied symbolism of animals. The teachers provided examples of artists who used clay as a way to communicate emotions, such as artist Lee Yun Hee, whose narrative works include persons experiencing fear and anxiety. Many students had never been exposed to this type of sculpture before and were very interested in the works they saw.

We began the process by having students pick objects that symbolized things that had personal meaning to them. The students drew sketches in their journals on what they wanted their totem pole to look like and shared their ideas with their peers. The teachers looked at the journals to make sure the objects could easily be created and fired, and provided feedback and tips for creating the shapes.

Once the sketches were approved and finalized, the students were taught how to manipulate the clay and use the tools to create the shapes of the symbols they chose. One teacher demonstrated how to carve the clay into the forms they wanted, while the other teachers worked individually with students helping them to craft the clay and make sure pieces were hollowed out to avoid exploding in the kiln later.

ONCE STUDENTS SKEWERED the pieces to poke holes through the forms, they painted and glazed their pieces. It took quite some time to get each piece sculpted, glazed and fired, as it was important to make sure each piece had a proper-sized hole in it so they could be assembled once they cooled.

If the paint became smudged in this process, students touched up their pieces before they went into the kiln. It was also important to check that students had not assembled their totem poles onto the wooden skewers before they go into the kiln, since the skewers can burn during firing.

The finished pieces were then loaded into the kiln for firing. Once the forms cooled, students stuck wooden skewers into 5″ x 5″ black foam-core squares, then carefully assembled their poles by placing each piece in the proper order.

Probably the most difficult part of the process was getting students to understand that their forms would need to be assembled after the kiln firing. Students needed to consider weight and balance, making sure their forms were not too heavy to put onto the skewers.

As students stacked their poles, some realized they should have made their holes wider through the pieces. Sometimes they discovered they had to arrange their totem poles differently from the sketches they made, as placing the heavier pieces on top became an issue. In some of these cases, super glue became their friend.

THE PROJECT BECAME THE PERFECT way to introduce middle schoolers to techniques for building clay sculptures, and to artists who used clay forms and symbols to communicate emotions. The activity created a safe place for students to reflect on their feelings about themselves, and learn about another culture. Their reflections of the various stages of the activity showed how focused they were during each step. And, the students’ pieces turned out beautifully. 


Family, church and friends: This student has positive influences in her life that encourage her and help her stay strong as she plans her future as a teacher and having a family of her own.



Here, the student depicted herself as a bird —free and full of knowledge. The cloud represents change, and the basketball symbolizes teamwork and friendship. FC33 is her soccer team, which has kept her focused on her goals, and the alien represents “the mystery of the future.”



A symbol of mothering, a turtle was chosen by this student to represent herself because it is how she feels with her friends. The blue house represents her family in better times, while the broken heart symbolizes divorce. The intact heart represents the love from friends and her mother, which helped her get through all of it. The world on top is her future, which she hopes will stay whole.


Middle school students will …
use tools and materials to show mastery craftsmanship with clay.
learn about the narrative storytelling of ceramic Korean artist Lee Yun Hee.
demonstrate how to use clay to form symbols that have personal meaning.

Creating: Conceive and develop new artistic ideas and work.
RESPONDING: Experiment with clay to create personal narratives that reflect their interests and emotions.

Pencils, journals
Low fire clay, clay carving tools, glazing medium
Acrylic Paints, brushes
Super glue
Long wooden skewers or dowel rods, 5″ x 5″ foam core blocks

Terese Giobbia, PhD, is the Coordinator of the Art Education/Visual Arts Therapy programs at West Virginia University in Morgantown. This project was conducted at a middle school in Davis, West Virginia.


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