Students will explore Roxanne Swentzell’s notion that many little things make big things possible by keeping a journal about the “little things” they do each week. They will also examine the sculpture and assess the ways in which the artist conveys this concept through little details and the use of sewing. Students will then design and sew small pillows to integrate and reinforce the artist’s ideas.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonTwo 50 minute lessons
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- discuss themes represented in Roxanne Swentzell’s sculpture The Things I Have To Do To Maintain Myself
- create visual symbols to represent concepts or actions;
- use basic sewing skills to make a small pillow; and
- reflect on the creative process with their peers.
Homework before the lesson: This lesson is going to draw on the artist’s notion that “many little things make big things possible.” To prepare to explore this idea, have students keep a diary for three days before the lesson. They don’t have to be too personal, but the journal entries should be very descriptive.
- Some of the entries should focus on minute details to raise awareness of the many little things they do to care for themselves (e.g. breakfast isn’t simply, “I ate a bowl of cereal.” It would read more like, “I took out the box of cereal, opened up the outside of the box, and opened the inside wrapper. I took a bowl out of the cabinet after opening the door and set it down on the counter; I then opened a drawer, took a spoon out of the drawer, etc.).
- They should pay some attention to and record emotions, states of mind, and thoughts during the course of the three days.
- Warm-up: Tell students you are going to teach them a brief relaxation exercise. Have them get comfortable in their chairs, putting their heads down on their desks if they would like. Take them through the following steps:
- Breath slowly in for 4 counts and out for 4 counts; continue this breathing
- Curl your toes tightly; release
- Flex your calves; release
- Flex your thighs; release
- Shrug your shoulder to your ears tightly; release
- Squeeze your eyes shut and purse your lips tightly; release
- Take a deep breath and open your eyes when you are ready.
- Share the image of the sculpture. Using the About the Art section, talk about the artist’s intentions and cultural/traditional influences. Explain that the sculpture is of a sacred clown, called a koshain Tewa (TAY-wah), the language of Santa Clara Pueblo. Ask the following questions (they can share their answers in small groups or write them in a journal):
- How would you describe the kosha’s face?
- What do you notice about his body language?
- How does looking at him make you feel?
- Why did the artist use sewing to symbolize care?
- What’s important about sewing?
- Have students gather their homework assignments and count out the little things they did during the three days to take care of themselves (physically and emotionally). Talk about how many things they had to do to get through just a few days. How does the kosha embody these many little things? How do these little things make big things possible?
- Talk about the skill of sewing and how it requires slowing down and being patient. Share that you are going to sew small pillows to do a “little thing” for self care.
- Distribute fabric and invite students to use the fabric markers and/or paints to decorate their pillows. The images should be ones that symbolize little things they can do to care for themselves. Allow the images to dry overnight.
- Warm-up: Have students practice threading needles, making knots, and sewing on scraps of fabric left over from cutting the pillow pieces. Practicing in this way reduces the fear some of them may have about sewing. Demonstrate how to make stitches and then assist students as needed.
- Once students feel comfortable, have them pin the pieces of fabric together with their outside designs facing each other. Model how they should sew about ¼” in from the edge around the fabric, leaving 3” open on the last side. (If you have a digital camera, it might be fun to take pictures of the students’ expressions while they work and post them next to the image of the kosha.)
- Turn the pillow right-side-out through the 3” gap and fill it with stuffing using the eraser edge of a pencil. Students should stuff the pillow to a thickness they like.
- Demonstrate how to fold the open fabric and tuck it in before stitching the final open section closed.
- Have students share their pillows in small groups, talking about the meaning of the symbols they selected, what it was like to sew, and any other feelings about their pillows or how the little things they portrayed make the big things possible.
- One needle and thread for each student
- Two rectangles of fabric for each student (preferably an off-white or white, opaque, somewhat thin material; the size is up to you, depending on the amount of time you have— 9 x 11 inch recommended)
- Assorted colors of fabric paints and/or pens
- 8–10 sewing pins for each student
- One pencil with eraser for each student
- Stuffing for each pillow (varies depending on size)
- Access to the following websites if you would like to review some sewing tips before teaching this lesson: for helpful tips on sewing pillows: https://thesewingloftblog.com/tips-for-making-pillows/; https://thesewingloftblog.com/pillow-form/; https://thesewingloftblog.com/ladder-stitch/; for other helpful sewing tips on different knots, stitches, etc: https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/how-to-sew-basic-stitches-221433; https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Sew./
- About the Art section on The Things I Have To Do To Maintain Myself (included with the lesson plan)
- One color copy of the sculpture for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Invent and Discover to Create
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Roxanne Swentzell was born in Taos, New Mexico in 1962. Her mother was a potter, writer, and scholar from Santa Clara Pueblo, and her father was a New Jersey native of German descent who was a philosophy professor in Santa Fe. Growing up in Santa Fe, in a household that was filled with clay and artwork, Roxanne took to art-making at an early age. As a child, she struggled to express herself verbally. In order to let others know how she was feeling, she would sculpt small figures that represented her emotions.
Roxanne attributes much of her success to guidance from her family, particularly her mother, Rina, and her uncle, Michael Naranjo, a blind sculptor. From 1978-1980, before graduating high school, she attended the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Today, she spends much of her time at Tower Studio, twelve miles north of Santa Fe. Continuing her interests in nature and preserving the earth, Swentzell founded the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, “a research and education organization that relates to permaculture…a way of looking at the world based on the laws of nature.”
Swentzell believes that it is extremely important for her work to have a direct connection with reality. Her art must be a full expression of herself and her experiences and observations of life. She says, “I learned to listen to myself and not be so influenced by what other people wanted me to make. I am going to present the world through my eyes—and not as somebody told me I was supposed to.” She also aims to communicate with all people through her artwork—both Native and non-Native—about the things we share as humans. “With my sculptures I try to reach people’s emotions so they can remember themselves,” says Swentzell.
What Inspired It?
This sculpture is a representation of a clown, called a kosha in Tewa [TAY-wah], the language of Santa Clara Pueblo. In the Pueblo creation story, the kosha were the first to emerge onto the surface of the earth, climbing up from the underworld and out of the womb of Mother Earth. As they surfaced, each was facing one of the four cardinal directions. The people of the earth followed, dispersing to all parts of the world and becoming the different races. Kosha continue to play a part in Santa Clara ceremonies and stories. One of their main roles is to teach lessons about life. Kosha teach by imitating human behaviors; it is then up to us to recognize when those behaviors are flawed.
This kosha sits deep in concentration, mending his broken ear. With this sculpture, Swentzell references the idea that humans are in a constant state of development. An individual makes choices as he/she creates him/herself. Swentzell is also asking us to consider the importance of a seemingly mundane act. “I like to make the mundane significant, because that’s the way we go throughout days. This piece is about all the little things we do to make things possible. It’s an appreciation of something that’s not always acknowledged,” says Swentzell.
The black and white stripes on the body of the kosha represent balance, one of the important life lessons that are taught by kosha.
The kosha is deep in concentration. Notice how he carefully threads the needle with an extra-thick piece of yarn. His eyes are focused, his lips are pursed, and even his toes are curled tightly together.
Swentzell makes her sculptures out of clay, using the techniques of a potter. Unlike other potters in her family, she uses purchased clay, in part due to the large amounts that she uses. She uses coils to create the body and makes cuts where she will add limbs, which are made with coils as well. The body and limbs are hollow, while the toes and fingers are solid. She sculpts the face. The figure must dry for about two weeks before it is ready to be fired in a kiln.