At Last, Totem Poles!

Grade 5/6 Paper Mache Totem Poles

I looked up in the Vancouver Airport, and what did I see?


This project would be a long process at the best of times, and this year it became even more protracted between the student teacher’s work with the class, my own trips to Jamaica and BC, plus other intervening class activities.  Phew.  We persevered, however, and finally finished in the last days of the school year.  Woohoo!

Connecting with their studies in indigenous cultures in Canada,  we looked at the ideas, history and imagery of the totem poles of the Haida on the West Coast. We talked about the significance of the animals as totems:  what characteristics and associations might they hold?

The Assignment:  come up with 3 animals that might be of significance to, or connect with, you and/or your family.  We spent some time in the computer lab to help gather ideas and images.  I had them draw out their totem animals and design the arrangement on paper at this point.

Back to the Art Room:  it was time to begin building the armatures!  Each student was given a sturdy cardboard tube, and access to other materials such as corrugated cardboard, cones, newspaper, egg cartons, etc.  Oh, and masking tape – LOTS of masking tape.

I continuously encouraged them to build their structures strong, and with extensions that exaggerated the features and pulled the totem away from just a cylinder with a few small apologetic bumps.  There was to be nothing sorry about these totems!  The bases needed to be widened to accommodate the weight that was going to occur as paper mache would be applied.  Details and features could be suggested by the forms big and small, and then detailed later in paint.

This is a big mixed class; the energy and the chatting and the mess filled the room each time.  Love it!  Collapse on the couch at home afterwards (me).

Yes, mess.  Because now it was time for the paper mache.  Students ripped countless strips of newspaper, and I mixed bucket after bucket of paper mache solution, using a flour, salt and water recipe.  My kitchen flour bucket (I do have a big one, what with running a B&B) took significant hits several times as I had to rush off to class after class, with (ahem) no time to get to the store …

Once in class …

It was interesting to watch just who dove into working with wet goop  on their hands (smocks were a non-negotiable), and who really had an aversion to “gettin’ messy” – the latter trying vainly to manage with only their two fingertips of each hand to make contact.  Hey, most just got in there and did the messy stuff anyway.  All over animated conversations of this and that, of course.  Nothin’ like workin’ together on these big projects!

Once the mache dried over the next several pungent weeks in the Art Room, the students applied cheap white house paint to their totems in preparation for the final painting.

Here was their opportunity to really kick the totems up a notch.  I had them use a limited palette of white (already there), black, brown, and red (such as what would have been available to the Haida).  This would continue to relate their totems to that tradition.   Some students forgot that the white was also an element, and began to completely cover it with brown (before I noticed in that big busy class), but for those who kept the white or reapplied it, I think the results were more successful.  I had some pictures of Haida designs at the front board for them to refer to, and I made suggestions from time to time to work in more detail and designs, to add interest and to give further clues about the animals on their totem.

This project was a long labour on their part:  kudos to Mrs. Andrews’ class for sticking with it, and producing some wonderful results!  I am really proud of you – and the totem poles look great!!

By the way:  they were featured, and offered for sale, at the Art Show – they were well received, I can tell you.  Done.

Winter – Spring 2012 / Parliament Oak School

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