All artists must be willing to engage with the free exploration of materials. By doing such, fresh properties can be discovered, processes can be experimented with, and the true value of ‘mistakes’ can be learned. This allows for unique works, as each artist learns to manipulate the medium in their own way. I’m always keen to ‘let the materials do the teaching’ in my art room, and I find students respond very well to being allowed to experiment with a new medium. I think found objects provide some of the most exciting opportunities for this kind of exploration and I thought I’d give a few examples of the kind of found object work that’s been created in my art room.
I start this project by introducing students to the work of two artists who have made great use of found materials. Initially, students looked at Man Ray’s Indestructible Object and consider his juxtaposition of photography and readymade objects. Young people explore the possible links between the photographed eye and the shape and purpose of the readymade metronome, as they attempt to make sense of Man Ray’s intentions and their own interpretations.
(Photo from Tate Modern)
The second example I give to students is a photograph of one of Cathy Wilkes installation works. Young people examine the way Wilkes’ creates haunting environments through the combination of apparently unrelated objects. Students are then invited to explore the dramatic tensions in the scene, considering the possible motivations of the figures within it.
(photo from Tate Modern)
After consideration of the works of Man Ray and Cathy Wilkes, students will have some ideas about the artistic potential of pre-existing objects.
Use of found materials provides a great many opportunities for learning. For one, it encourages students’ creative thinking as it asks them to see the objects as something other than what they were intended. In order to do this a young person must be able see their chosen objects in terms of form and shape. For example, they might ‘look beyond’ the utilitarian form of a soft drinks bottle and imagine it as a space rocket, a medieval tower, or the horn of a rhinoceros. This engenders the sort of creative thinking that reaches out of the art room, across the curriculum, and even out into the young person’s future career. Students should be given every opportunity to learn the skills of reinvention, interpretation and imagination.
A great way to get students started with this sort of thinking is to provide students with an assortment of mundane objects and ask students to draw around them, considering how their shapes might be turned into something else. Examples of objects I’ve used are compasses, rolls of masking tape and clothes pegs - really just about anything. Students usually jump at this, it’s a light-hearted activity and one that it isn’t possible to fail at. I’ve been amazed at some of the things students have been able to create when presented with mundane objects and a pack of marker pens.
From here, I encouraged students to begin thinking in three dimensions. I always keep on hand a supply of mundane and disposable materials like plastic packaging, cardboard boxes and old envelopes. Students considered the shapes of the materials available to them and begin to imagine what else they could be.
I’ve so far concentrated on the learning possibilities in found object work but there are therapeutic benefits to this too. Learning to see the beauty in the throwaway and the ‘meaningless’ can be enormously healing. Repurposing a piece of supposed rubbish and turning it into something beautiful is a powerful life lesson, and one that I hope stays with my students long after they leave the art room.
Below are some examples of work created using drinking glass packaging, left over paper scraps and pipe cleaners. Students immediately saw that the apertures in the packaging resembled doors and windows and began creating miniature worlds using the pipe cleaners and left over bits of paper. The pieces below are examples from the culmination of the lesson described above and allowed students the opportunity to express all they’d learnt about found objects, Man Ray and Cathy Wilkes.