Students will explore how body language and position in the Olmec Seated Figure communicates a certain tone or mood, compare the body language and position of this figure with other pieces of art, and create their own three-dimensional piece of art that conveys a selected tone or feeling.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 45 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- describe the tone and mood conveyed by body language and position in the Olmec Seated Figure;
- compare how different types of body language and position in other pieces of art communicate various moods; and
- create a three-dimensional piece of art using Sculpey clay or Play-Doh that communicates a selected tone or feeling.
- Warm-up: Encourage students to become more familiar with the artistic process with this interesting activity. Provide each student with a piece of Sculpey clay or Play-Doh. Ask the students to close their eyes and form the material into the shape of a gingerbread person. Then invite the students to open their eyes and take a look at the figure they created. Does it look like a gingerbread person? Ask students to share their thoughts about this experience. Collect the Sculpey clay or Play-Doh for future use.
- Display the Olmec Seated Figure and invite the students to examine the figure closely. What do they notice? What color is the figure? What material do they think the sculpture was made from? Encourage the children to think about how body language and position can communicate a certain tone or feeling. What words or phrases would the students use to describe the body language of the sculpture (friendly, bored, entertained)?
- Display two other sculptures from the Denver Art Museum’s collection, Shiva Nataraja and The Cheyenne. What words or phrases would the students use to describe the tones or feelings communicated by the body language and position in these pieces of art (fun, festive, excited)?
- Invite the students to think of a tone or feeling that they would like to display through art and write their ideas on the board. For example, the students might want to portray a feeling of excitement, joyfulness, confusion, or confidence.
- Group the students in pairs and call out the tones or feelings from the board. Have one group member make a face or move their body in a way that represents that tone or feeling while the other observes, switching back and forth for each word so both students can get a visual idea of how to convey the feeling.
- Once the students have developed their ideas, encourage them to create a Sculpey clay or Play-Doh sculpture which conveys one selected tone or feeling through body language and position. Place the sculptures in a protected area to dry overnight.
- If time allows, have older students write a journal entry from the sculpture’s point of view describing what he/she/it is thinking about!
- After the sculptures have dried, be sure to have a gallery show in order to celebrate the students’ creativity!
- Sculpey clay or Play-Doh
- Copies of The Cheyenne by Frederic Remington, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Copies of Shiva Nataraja, or the ability to project the image into a wall or screen
- About the Art sheet on Olmec Seated Figure (found to the right of this lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- One color copy of the sculpture for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
This figure was created by an Olmec [ole-mek] artist. The term Olmec refers to the pre-Columbian culture that flourished on the Gulf Coast of Mexico from 1400–500 BC, and to the style of art found throughout Mesoamerica during this period. Mesoamerica is defined by a group of cultural traits, including agriculture and a diet based on a triad of crops (maize, beans, and squash); the use of a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day ritual calendar; the playing of a sacred ballgame; the construction of monumental public architecture; and a religion that emphasized blood sacrifice. The Olmec was Mesoamerica’s first civilization to embody all or most of these traits.
The artist who crafted this hollow earthenware figure modeled it from pinkish clay and covered it with a smooth white slip (a mixture of clay and water) to give it a skin-like look. The artist then applied red and black pigments to the head and face, possibly after the figure was fired (heated to harden the clay).
What Inspired It?
Figures like this one are called “babies” because of their large head proportions and often short, fleshy limbs. The faces on Olmec figurines are distinctive, with heavy eyelids and thick lips with down-turned corners. Some, like this one, have a jaguar-like mouth. Some scholars think that in Olmec belief, powerful individuals had jaguar alter egos and Olmec shamans (intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds) were able to transform themselves into jaguars. Called were-jaguars (like werewolves), these figures have snarling or crying mouths, are sexless, and suggest possible shamanic transformation of humans into animals. The purpose of these types of figures is unknown. In other Olmec depictions, supernatural baby-like figures are held on the laps or in the arms of sculptured Olmec rulers. The baby-like figures may have had an association with the natural elements such as earth or water.
The figure sits in a relaxed asymmetrical pose with the head slightly cocked.
The limbs are soft, thick, rounded, and don’t reflect any anatomical reality of bones and muscle. The hands and feet are small and elegant.
The head is an elongated oval with narrow eyes, a slender nose, and delicately outlined eyebrows and hairline. Red and black pigment heightens the features, perhaps to indicate the figure is wearing a helmet or other headdress.
The mouth has strongly down-turned corners. This mouth shape has been compared to a jaguar’s snarl.