Frank Stella: Relief Sculptures

Frank Stella is an American Minimalist painter and sculptor whose work spans over five decades!

He's one of the first artists to use shaped canvases. I really like Stella's bold use of line and shape. All those clean lines and graphic shapes make me happy.

He really charms this slightly obsessive compulsive artist's little heart!

I've been stewing over a Frank Stella project for a couple of years now, not really knowing how I would flesh it out. After getting a few ideas online and gathering it with some of the classroom experience I have acquired, this project was really fun and manageable for the students. And me! I decided to explore Stella's relief sculptures. This translated nicely with simple cardboard shapes, paint and a hot glue gun.

  • A few weeks before class, gather a bunch of cardboard scraps. Perhaps you have some left over from your papier mache project. I used cereal and pasta boxes too and they seemed to be alot easier for the students to cut with scissors.
  • You will also need paint. My students didn't like the way tempera paint was flat, so we used some Smart Craft instead. It was much more bright and vibrant.
  • I began by showing the students some of Stella's sculptures, for inspiration.
  • To get the students going, I had them sketch some simple shapes onto newsprint, which they then sketched onto the cardboard.
  • I will admit the classroom was a bit chaotic, since there were students in different phases of the project. I had three tables going: one for cutting the cardboard, the second for painting and drying (with my handy dandy hair-dryer!), and the third for assembling/gluing sculpture together.
  • I helped each student with their concept. Some students were inspired by music, sports and aliens.
  • It is important for each student to create a base for their sculpture, so they have something to build their shapes upon.
  • After each cardboard piece is cut out, begin the painting phase. Since there was no time to primer them, each piece needed a couple of coats of paint. Here is where the hair-dryer comes in.
  • Encourage students to create designs and patterns on their cardboard pieces, which will make the overall sculpture more intricate and eye-catching.
  • When all pieces are dry, instruct students to play with their shapes, arranging them in the most visually interesting design. This was fun!
  • Now the trick is to remember how you originally laid it out so you can recreate it while laying it down with a hot glue gun!
  • I didn't feel comfortable with the students handling a hot glue gun, so I just sat down with them and had them instruct me where each piece went so I could glue them down. You could also use basic Elmer's glue but it would probably take a long time to dry and wouldn't be as sturdy. Of course, older students can use a hot glue gun.
I was really impressed with how they all turned out. The students were really involved with each process and once again, I am amazed at their creativity! So give this project a try, it was alot of fun and there are lots of ways you can adapt the overall concept.

The artwork above was created by my son, who is in the 3rd grade. Here are a few additional sculptures made by my students.

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  1. Pearmama- Thank you for the amazing lesson idea. much appreciated- Marnie- middle school art teacher in NY

  2. I've done an activity similar to this. I score/cut large pieces of cardboard to make "trays" from appliance boxes. The sides of the trays are about 3" tall when they are folded up. While the cardboard is flat, the students work in teams to paint the cardboard and then fold up the sides. Once the tray is assembled we pour, drip and tip the trays. Sometimes we toss in marbles to make paint tracks. After the cardboard is dry, I cut the card board into random shapes in many sizes. The students begin to design their sculptures by modifying these shapes as starting points.


Artistically speaking....

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