Surreal Animals: A Pass the Crazy Clay Game

An Art Lesson by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.
                                 Professor of Art, Ceramics and Art Education Instructor
                                                                  Goshen College
                                                            Goshen, Indiana 46526
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The Objective of this lesson is to increase Imagination and Creativity. It provides practice and awareness of the way artists can get inspiration and ideas by looking at the work itself, the process, and the material as they work on it. 

While many artists are known to work alone in their studio, it is also known that many artists suffer from creative blocks, depression, and isolation. Teamwork is an alternative when isolation is not working. In the classroom, this kind of work also occasions many teachable moments for asking questions about the creative process in the context of seeing new ideas as the work is passed to us.


A game like this teaches us that art often does not start with a preconceived idea or extensive preparation. In some ways of working, ideas occur spontaneously right out of the process and materials. Being open and expectant can be cultivated. After doing this game approach, I wonder if individual students would become better at developing their own piece building on some of the most creative team made items.

So often in real life situations we need to know how to collaborate on teamwork projects and problems. We are lucky as art teachers to have good ways to practice this as part of our curriculum.

Age and Grade Level

  • This lesson is not recommended below 3rd grade because many younger children become upset if they have to give up control of their product. 
  • This is a good lesson for adults or older children who need to loosen up and cultivate their imaginative and divergent thinking powers.

Have them in a large circle. No table needed. 
Each student has about a pound of ordinary pottery clay. A sandy or heavily grogged clay is easier to dry and fire for thicker sculpture work.  
  1. They are asked to form it into an animal while holding it in their hands - not on the table.  They work by the analytical process where the parts are not attached, but the parts are pinched and pulled out of the lump of clay.
  2. Ask them to turn it around frequently.  Look at it from every direction.
  3. Just as it starts to take form, the teacher asks them to pass it too the next person.
  4. Instruction: "Look at the animal you got. It is now yours. The one you started now belongs to somebody else. Do not talk to the person next to you. You do what you want to do with the animal you got. You may change it any way you want to. Others may change yours also.
  5. As soon as some serious progress is being made, ask them to pass it on and repeat the instructions. 
  6. To add life, ask that they have the animal doing something that it likes to do or something it hates to do. Ask them to have it turning to look at something it is afraid of at something that makes it hungary. Continue this process until the animals begin to look finished.  
  7. Ask, "What is the creature doing?"
  8. Ask, "What is the creature's attitude?"
  9. As the works progress, they may be placed on the table, but keep them turning.  Small parts and details may be added.
  10. If you feel they are not being creative enough, as animals begin to appear finished, consider passing only the front half of the animal to the next person and have them join the front and back from different animals. Be prepared to have a sense of humor. It is not every day you see a bass-giraffe or a rabbit-turtle.
  11. If you keep passing the hybrid animals, they develop identities of their own. 
  12. It may add some unique qualities if they are asked to pretend it is actually a robot or a toy creature.
  13. Using pencils, add texture and detail.
  14. At the end each student invents a word to name the animal or creature.  The name is written on the clay.
When the details and expressive qualities are finished place them in the middle of the circle and discuss the sculptures. Be sure to also discuss the process. 
  1. "How did you feel when you had to let somebody else work on something you started?"
  2. "Was it harder or easier to do it this way than to make a piece all by yourself? Why do you think so?"
  3. "Do you think people can be more creative all by themselves or when they have other people to work with? Why?" 
  4. "What did we learn about how to make a sculpture that is lively looking?
  5. "What did we learn about making sculpture that is three-dimensional?
  6. "Next time you do a sculpture by yourself, what things will you try that we learned by doing this project?"
  7. "Since we made these as a group, we don't have to fire all of them. We will fire only 30 percent of these (the teacher decides how many). Many artist make practice pieces before they keep their best ones. If you had to select only two of them as art for a museum, which would you pick, and why would you pick it."
  8. "After exhibiting them in our hallway case by the office, the best one will be a gift for Mrs. (the building custodian who faithfully cleans our room). We will make a nice wooden base for it. The rest of the best pieces we can use for prizes for the students who are the best at remembering to do their sketches and bring in things we need for our lessons. 
Firing Caution
If the clay is too thick to fire, use a coat hanger wire to poke holes every half inch up from the bottoms. Do it before the clay dries. Leave these holes open to the bottom to let the steam out during firing to avoid explosions.  Thick clay must be fired slower at the early stage to avoid steam explosions. Pre drying thick work in a kitchen oven at a controlled temp of 180 F. can also help. Steam begins to form at 212 F. at sea level. Earlier at high altitudes.
ART HISTORY - We do this last, lest the creativity be squelched. 
The children study several surrealistic animal sculptures. Picasso did wonderful combinations of things to make animals. He welded handlebars to a bicycle seat to make a Bull's Head Use your favorite Internet image search tool to see this work.

On another piece he made a bronze gorilla using a toy car on top of a globe (Baboon and Young also called Monkey and Her Baby -  collection of Minneapolis Institute of the Arts and other places). The toy car is the head. The whole piece looks like a person holding a child, but the child has the proportions of an adult.  Use your favorite Internet image search tool to see this work.

I show work like this and can ask students to write what they see and the possible meanings of these works. Ask them if they can think of how Picasso might have gotten the inspiration for these works. "What was he thinking about as looked at the things he used to make these animals." "In what ways did we similar thinking when we made our clay pieces?"

I also find that collage can be an excellent teamwork activity with about four students working together (not passing it around). In my experiment, most groups of four created better collages in one hour than most individuals did in four hours. Four heads are better than one and they learn from each other when teamwork is working well. If grading is an issue, I ask students to give feedback using a participation rubric. The rubric can be written to encourage the hesitant and throttle the controllers in a team. They fill it our for themselves and for the others on their team. If they all see the rubric in advance, it can helps them know the expectations for positive teamwork participation.

Teams can make very creative clay assembled sculptures. One idea is to have each team come up with some kind of theme that focus their efforts. Have the class list some clay making themes such as showing softness, hardness, motion, growth, time, death, or fatigue. Another type of theme might be something like geology, evolution, conservation, conservation, love, anger, violence, pop culture, music contrasts, plant life, or humor.

Other Pass the Clay GAMES
Sculpture of people and pottery can also be made by passing the clay. Slab, coil and pinch methods can be used. Using a pass the clay game as a pottery making game with fifth graders was favorably described in a November 28, email to the TeacherArtExchange from from Linda.

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Marvin Bartel, all rights reserved
this page updated November 28, 2005

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Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Emeritus Professor of Art
Goshen College, 1700 South Main St., Goshen IN 46526

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