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Publication: Arts and Activities
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 27311
ISSN: 00043931
Journal code: IAAC


Students know the differences among visual characteristics and purposes of art in order to convey ideas.

Students know that the visual arts have both a history and specific relationships to various cultures.

Students know the differences between materials, techniques and processes.

As a joint curriculum, we find that the music, physical education and visual art curriculums "nest" together rather well. It is with this in mind that we created last year's theme, "Around the World in 180 Days." We focused on the folk art, music and traditional sports and games from various cultures around the world.

With the subject of art, I tried to choose traditional craft/ folk art that stimulated discussion on the differences and similarities between folk art and fine art. I also included at least one art form from each continent to represent as many cultures as possible, one of them being the Russian art culture.

Russia is a very large country, spanning across the two continents of Asia and Europe. For the featured project, we studied the folk art of European Russia. Russia has such a rich folk-art tradition that it was difficult to choose just one project. I settled on hand building "nesting dolls" out of clay for my third-grade students.

Hand building with clay is always a favorite for any child. Every year I make sure to include at least one clay project in each grade level's curriculum. By the time the students get to third grade, they have a pretty good grasp of the different hand-building techniques they are going to need to create these little sculptural surprises.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT We began the unit with some map work and a look at various folk-art traditions from the past, many of which are still in practice today. Although the dolls are commonly referred to as "nesting" or "stacking" dolls. I think it is very important for the students to use the proper vocabulary and historical context, so we spent time learning the word Matryoshka.

In old Russia, among peasants, Matryona or Matriosha was a very popular female name. The Latin root "mater" means "mother." This name was associated with the image of a large, round-figured mother of a big peasant family. Consequently, Matryoshka became a symbolic or figurative name, and was used specially to refer to these brightly painted wooden figurines made in such a way that they could be taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another.

Although many people think that the origin of the dolls dates well back in history, in reality, the first Matryoshka was created in 1890 in the workshop "Children's Education," situated on the Abramtsevo Estate in new Moscow. The owner of Abramtsevo was Sava Mamontov, an industrialist and patron of the arts. At the time, many famous Russian artists worked along with folk craftsmen in the workshops of Mamontov to create various traditional crafts. 'Hie traditional Matryoshka is depicted as a portly mother figure with the customary Russian babushka, or triangularly folded kerchief, on the head.

VISUAL REFERENCES At this point, many of the students asked if they could bring in their own personal nesting dolls from home, and I collected and brought in a wide variety of examples to use as visual references for their designs. I did a quick Web search and found several good websites with lots of examples, including a detailed history of Matryoshka, as well as other Russian craft/folk art, including www., which has great historical references and examples,, also great for history and examples, and, which featured great artist examples.

Each student sketched out a design for his or her own set of three Matryoshkas. I left the subject matter open-ended to allow for maximum interest and creativity; however, many students opted to create designs reminiscent of the traditional Matryoshka. The variety of ideas amazed me. Everything from a mummy with the wrapping reduced down to a skeleton, to the student's own family, became subject matter for the Matryoshka.

PINCH-POT TECHNIQUES After the students finished their designs, I demonstrated the pinch-pot technique. My students had previously made pinch pots so this was a review for them.

Each student started with three balls of clay in decreasing sizes. We found it easier to begin wim the largest one. They first cut the ball in half and pinched out each half, making sure not to pinch too much in one area, resulting in equal wall mickness.

The students soon discovered that it was a challenge to make two smaller pots that would easily fit inside the larger one, and a repeated demonstration may be necessary. Many students accomplished this on their first try and went on to help others who were struggling. (Team teaching at its best!)

The students then put the tops and bottoms of the individual sculptures together and smoothed them out until they had created the desired shape and size. Over and over again, the two halves did not meet up perfectly, so the students worked the clay until the pieces fit together. Depending on the subject, some students created tall, thin shapes, while others created short, round shapes. The students made sure the bottoms were slightly flattened so the sculptures would be able to stand.

FIRING AND DECORATION I bisque fired all the sculptures nested for optimal space. After the bisque firing, the students used watercolor paints and markers for outlining. They, again, referred to their original designs. The final step was to paint or spray on a water-based varnish to give a lacquer finish. Another option would be to use underglaze and clear gloss glaze.

These little surprises were a highlight for our Around the World in 180 Days Spring Multicultural Arts Festival. The parents and guests thoroughly enjoyed opening each subsequent layer to reveal the hidden gem inside. The parents loved them so much that many wanted to take them home right men and there.

Author affiliation:

Karen Barmore is an art teacher at Corrie Elementary School in Tampa, Fla.

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