Introduction to the Life and Sculptures of Edmonia Lewis
Media Type: air-dry clay (see recipes)
Activity and Lesson by: Amber Day Scott, Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture
Formal Lesson Plan and TEKS Information

Edmonia Lewis was the first professional African American and Ojibwe sculptor. Her work explored religious and classical themes. How did she use classical European artistic styles and materials to tell a story that was uniquely her own?

Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Watch this student video by Erin Nguyen of Lewis’s history and career:


We are going to create self-portrait “busts” using our homemade, air-dry clay. A bust is a portrait featuring only the upper torso and head. In this case, we are depicting our upper chest, shoulders, neck, and head. We are using white clay to resemble the marble sculptures made by Edmonia Lewis.

Set up a clean work surface that is free from debris, dust, or grit that would get caught in your clay. Use only a small portion of clay at a time, so that the unused portion does not dry out. Keep all unused clay securely wrapped in plastic.

Begin to “work” the clay. This process is intended to limber-up the clay and make it more pliable. Kneading the clay and making coils (long skinny ropes) are nice methods for getting a feel for the materials. **Try not to create air pockets in the clay. Air pockets can lead to cracking later.

Create the general shape of the shoulders and neck of your figure and attach it to your cardboard base by scraping/smearing the bottom edge of your sculpture out onto the cardboard to stabilize it.

Form the shape of your torso by mashing and stretching the clay with your hands or sculpting tools. You may need to add more clay in areas that need to protrude or bulge. To attach new clay to your existing form, gently mash it into place and then use your fingers or a smooth tool (like the back of a spoon) to blend the edges together. Remember to have fun!

It is a good strategy to sculpt the head of your figure while it is separate from the body. Make a round ball of clay that is proportional to your body (about half as wide as the shoulders.) Look at your reference photos or your reflection often, to make sure you are staying on track.

Do not get overwhelmed if your sculpture is not immediately turning out the way you planned. In most cases, these things are repairable.

Is a human face perfectly round like a ball? Which features stick out? Add clay and blend the edges to form the brow bones, cheeks, nose, jaw, and chin. Keep checking your reflection or reference photos.

Add eyes, lips, ears, and hair.

The neck and shoulders of your sculpture are probably not strong enough to support the head, so you will need to give them a little help: insert a toothpick or some other thin, disposable stick straight down into the neck of your sculpture until it bumps into the cardboard base. Make sure to use a stick that is long enough that it still protrudes from the neck.

Gently line up the head and press it down onto the toothpick. Use your blending skills to join the clay from the neck onto the clay of the head/chin.

Make any final adjustments and repairs while the clay is still wet. Once it is dry, you can no longer change the shape.

Viola! How did you do? Allow the sculpture to dry, undisturbed at room temperature for a couple of days. Once your sculpture is dry you may seal it with a clear coat to prolong its life. 

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