Monday, September 7, 2009

In the Style of - Alexander Calder Wire Sculpture

After learning about the beginning and growth of Calder’s circus, the children make wire sculptures in the style of his circus figures. For ages 9 to 13. Plan 1 to 2 sessions.

  • Learning about Alexander Calder and his wire sculptures
  • Working with wire in the style of Calder
  • Working with three-dimensional form
stabile, mobile, three-dimensional, free-standing, allusion

The book Calder's Universe is full of photographs of Calder's circus figures. The DVD Calder's Circus is a wonderful motivator for this project and is available at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Click here and scroll down to see some of the figures from Calder's circus.

The Life of Alexander Calder
Although he became best known for his inventions of the mobile (a sculpture suspended in midair that moves with the breeze) and the stabile (a sculpture which is fixed in position), Calder also designed jewelry, invented toys, painted, and made sculptures. All of this work evolved from his early miniature circus.

Calder was born in 1898 in Pennsylvania to a family of artists. His grandfather and his father were both sculptors, and his mother was a painter. As a young boy, he enjoyed making wire and wooden toys and jewelry for his sister. Although he studied mechanical engineering, he eventually decided he wanted to be an artist as well.

At age 26, he was hired as an illustrator for a newspaper and assigned to cover the circus. Calder fell in love with the performances and aura of the circus and started to construct his own figures with wire.  These figures grew to fill five suitcases, which he took with him whenever he traveled between his homes in New York and France. He loved to make his circus figures “perform” for an audience. For many years he was invited to give shows in America and abroad.

Calder died of a heart attack in 1976. His circus figures can be seen on permanent display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

  • 18-gauge to 20-gauge wire cut into 5-foot lengths
  • Thin floral wire cut into 2-inch lengths
  • Masking tape for each end of the cut wire to avoid injuries
  • Wire cutters
  • Pliers
  • Needle-nosed pliers
  • Corks cut into various lengths
  • Odds and ends for decoratingfabric scraps, feathers, artificial flowers, pipe cleaners, yarn, Styrofoam balls, plastic-covered wire, sequins, etc.
  • White craft glue

  • Become familiar with Calder and his circus figures.
  • Set out wire cut into 5-foot lengths with the ends taped.
  • Set out floral wire, pliers, wire cutters, corks, and odds and ends.
How to Begin
  • Share the pictures of Calder’s wire sculptures with the children and tell them about Calder, his life, and his circus figures.
  • Explain to the children that they will be making wire sculptures using their own ideas while working in Calder's style. Their sculptures should be three-dimensional, or viewable from all sides. To keep the figures freestanding, or able to stand on their own, they should not be more than seven inches tall.
  • Be sure the children understand that two pieces of wire are difficult to join together, so they should not cut their wire until their figure is completed. If additional wire is needed, it can be attached with floral wire.
  • Children need to think about their figures before starting. Even though the wire can be straightened and bent again, it eventually becomes more difficult to work with.
  • Explain that forms can be very simple, often only giving the allusion, or effect, of hands or feet. It helps to think of the wire as a line traveling around the figure, moving down a leg, forming a foot and traveling back up the same leg, moving on to another leg, traveling down to the other foot, and back up again. Continue this movement traveling over the whole body, filling in details such as mouth and nose as you go. Show the children how to use pliers and needle-nose pliers for any sharp turns.
  • Cork can be used as part of a figure. To do this, dip the end of the wire into white glue and push it into the cork.
  • Give each child a five-foot length of wire and let them start bending, turning, and twisting it into a figure. Remind them to keep their work standing upright and to turn it often so the figures will be three-dimensional instead of flat.
  • Adornments, such as fabric and feathers, can be added with white glue. As these are attached, the balance of the wire figure might change. Bending the feet or adjusting them further apart will help the figure stand freely.
  • Books or films about Calder’s wire figures are important for the success of this project.
  • To avoid injuries, be sure to put a piece of masking tape on each end of the cut wire.
  • If the figures become too large, they are more difficult to balance and use a great deal of wire. It is more satisfying to keep them under seven inches tall.
  • Some children have difficulty getting started. Taping one end of their wire to the table top often helps by giving them a starting point.
  • To make figures move like some of Calder’s circus figures is too complicated for most children. A few might enjoy the challenge, but should be made aware of the difficulties involved.
  • Do the figures stand on their own?
  • Are the figures viewable from all sides?
  • Have the children gained an appreciation of the fun Calder had when making his wire figures?
What the children might say...
  • Can I have more wire if I need it?
  • How can I make bends in the wire the way Calder did?
  • My sculpture keeps falling over.
  • I’m going to make some of my detail with the floral wire.
  • I like the way Calder made hands and feet. I can do that.
  • I’m going to use a marker to draw a face on my cork.
What you might say...
  • There is more wire if needed, but remember these sculptures should not be too big.
  • To bend the wire, use the regular pliers or the needle-nosed pliers.
  • Keep your figure upright on the table while working to keep it three-dimensional instead of flat. Place the legs in different positions until the figure becomes balanced.
  • The floral wire is for connecting two pieces of wire, but it can also be used for details.
  • Working with wire, it is easier to just give the illusion of hands and feet. 
  • A marker will work well to make a face on the cork.
    Click to view this lesson in a printer-friendly format.