I have been wanting to do a collage unit with my students for years. I have avoided it because of what I have seen when they create collages on their own. Basically they victimize a bunch of magazines and then attack another piece of paper with randomly placed images and glue. The result is a jarring, messy, sticky magazine-vomit on paper. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing; just not what I had hoped for in a collage project.
I have taken a couple of stabs at it over the years. One little bonus project was for them to collage together a creature with human and animal/plant parts from a single national Geographic magazine (which is an art teacher’s favourite donation BTW). Some of these turned out well, but without devoting more time than I was prepared to, a lot of the creatures were constructed from too few pieces, lacking the variety that I envisioned initially–but it was just a 1 day bonus project, so I didn’t linger on it.
Last year, I decided that after our surrealism unit, it would be fun to revisit dada by giving them a 4 step bonus project. They had to again construct a main focus creature using a minimum of 8 pieces, including animal, plant and human, set to a neutral background created from a variety of small font black and white text. They had to use some larger found text and to add their own graffiti, based on a quote or ear-worm they had heard that week. The results were better than the first bonus project, and got me thinking about how to structure it into a full multi-day project.
One night last month, lying awake at about 3 am (seemingly my most artistically productive time if not for my early start school job), I was stuck obsessing over how I could provide that balance of structure and open ended challenge to engage the kids. This usually means a criteria list. Because I like lists. This is what I started with:
- Choose a starting theme/central focus
- Use a combination of the following;
- Found images
- Found text
- Hand written text (quotes, slogans)
- Hand drawn/painted images
- Found object/s
- Everything must be connected/integrated in some crazy way
I then went and gathered some online samples of collage (some dada, some very modern) for us to look at, and create a class list of common elements, which would then help me pull the previous list of criteria out of them–student focussed always! :>)
Going into the December holiday meant that I would have time to test this out a bit. I always try whatever project I do with the kids in advance–and often go back and play with it more once they teach me back.
I have a skull/skeleton collection at home. This started with a gift from a former roommate, who gave me a skull piggy bank when I graduated teacher’s college. I loved it so much, that it became a staple centrepiece, which wore different costumes depending on the occasion or time of year. Over time, skulls were gifted to me, some I collected. At any rate, I decided this was an obvious starting theme (though I intend to encourage kids to consider a broad range of themes from the playful, pet peeves to social justice).
I started by printing off a bunch of skull and skeleton images from online, as I don’t have any newspapers or magazines at home. This I quickly realized was a problem. I was not initially aware that I was choosing front facing views only. Because I was searching specific images, I was also missing the natural contrast of working with a limited source. I paired down what I had printed to one central image, and worked on swapping out features, and using other images to add onto it. Then I got a cooking booklet I was willing to sacrifice (seemed safe if I had owned it for multi years and never used it). This gave me the contrast in content I was looking for.
I spent a couple of hours moving around different parts before I decided I had something I was willing to glue down. After that, I extended the found images with sharpie and paint. I found it was still too busy, and increasing the contrast by adding dark and light tones helped to focus the overall piece.
A couple of days before, I had been telling my partner about this, and he asked me if I intended to keep his skull when he died. Now there are a lot of ‘interesting’ assumptions built into this statement, but I did like the odd sound of his words, so they became part of the text I added on. I can unpack the relationship implications later.
I found an old heart pendant from a long dumped/been-dumped-by-boyfriend, and added that to the ribcage. My partner pointed out that I put it up too high, to which I responded “Dammit Jim, I’m an artist, not a doctor!” I also added in a couple of little leftover Halloween spiders. Once everything was dry, I tamped it down with clear acrylic medium. The kids can use watered down glue. Public education.
So far, these are the tips I have for first time collagers:
- Play with orientation of all the pieces before gluing anything down; experiment with juxtaposition
- Don’t search specific images if you can avoid it. Limited resources produce more interesting and unexpected results. Also, it’s far less stressful to be spontaneous. The theme is enough to focus the end result.
- Extend found images with your own drawing, to integrate the different elements
- Be mindful of contrast in colour, tone, found content
So, that’s where I’m at. I had a blast, and I hope the kids enjoy it too.