Words as Art

Lesson Plan


Can words be more than just words? The art installation, Wheel, at the Denver Art Museum clearly shows how words can be used in art to capture history and feelings, and create mood. Challenge your students to make art out of words and capture the essence of a significant event.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 30 minute lesson

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • Understand how words can be used in art;
  • identify how the style of lettering impacts mood;
  • use words to capture the essence of a significant event; and
  • create a piece of word art.


  1. Warm-up: Display the image of Wheel and invite students to look carefully and share what they observe. Ask: What do you notice? What colors do you see? What material does it look like the artist used to make this outdoor sculpture? What words and symbols do you recognize? What adjectives could you use to describe this piece? What do you think is most interesting about this piece of artwork?
  2. Share with students that Wheel was created by a Cheyenne-Arapahoe artist named Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap Of Birds as a special piece of outdoor art to be installed at the Denver Art Museum. A key feature of the piece is the words the artist chose to include on the 10 tree forms that make up Wheel. These carefully chosen words are used to describe significant events in the history of American Indian peoples ofColorado and the surrounding area. In addition to selecting specific words, the artist varied the style of lettering to add mood and visual interest.
  3. Choose a historic event your students have recently studied as the theme for this language arts activity. Can’t think of a good theme? Students can also base their word art on a book you have read in class, a recent holiday, or their own lives. Once you have selected a theme, brainstorm ideas for words that fit the theme and record them on the board. For younger students, use the board as a word bank for beginning writers. For older students, use the brainstorming session as simply a means to get their ideas flowing, and then encourage students to come up with more relevant words on their own.
  4. Before passing out the art supplies, ask students to consider how different styles and sizes of lettering make Wheel more interesting and powerful. Ask: What do you notice about the words on the tree shapes? Are all the words written in the same style and size? Why do you think the artist wrote different words in different ways? What kind of message does a bigger word send versus a smaller word? Which would you think is more important? When the artist uses rough letters to write a word, what kind of emotion do you think he’s trying to put into that word? Would that word feel different if the same word were written in smooth elegant letters? What ideas do you have for using different sizes, colors and styles of writing for your word art piece?
  5. Give each student a sheet of paper and various markers, pencils and crayons. Invite them to first create a shape that relates to the story or event they are trying to tell. Words in Wheel fill the form of a “tree”. Invite them to fill their forms with words related to the activity theme in a way that explores the use of color, size and style.
  6. Create a word art gallery in your classroom to showcase the students’ work!


  • Large piece of chart paper and markers or (interactive) whiteboard on which to record students’ ideas as a class
  • One sheet of plain paper for each student
  • Markers, colored pencils and crayon
  • About the Art section on Wheel (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • One color copy of the artwork for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Writing and Composition
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art




HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds

Who Made It?

Edgar Heap of Birds is an accomplished Cheyenne-Arapaho artist who works in a variety of media—drawing, painting, printmaking—and is known for his public art interventions and installations, including Wheel. Much of his artwork is about refocusing how American Indian culture and history is viewed, perceived, and understood.

Born in 1954, Heap of Birds holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from the University of Kansas and a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) from Tyler School of Art (Temple University, Philadelphia). He also did graduate work at the Royal College of Art in London. He is on the faculty of Oklahoma University with a joint appointment in Native American Studies and Fine Arts.

What Inspired It?

Wheel was created specifically for its site at the Denver Art Museum and is rich in symbolism. Several American Indian artists were invited to submit proposals for a major public artwork to be located next to the museum’s North Building entrance. Use of the building’s curved wall was a key factor in Heap of Birds’s proposal—on it, in raised letters, he placed the Cheyenne words “nah-kev-ho-eyea-zim,” which mean “we are always returning back home again.”

Heap of Birds wants Wheel to be a gathering place for the community. The circle form is based on the Big Horn Medicine Wheel, a sacred site in northern Wyoming, as well as the circular form of a traditional Plains Indian Sun Dance lodge. The ten forked poles, or trees, are aligned with the summer solstice—on June 21st, the sun rises in an opening to the east between the first and last poles. Each tree is covered with words and drawings that recount different events in the history of American Indian peoples in Colorado and the surrounding region, from conflict over resources to global cooperation among indigenous peoples.



Bison hoof prints and outlines of hands are among the many sketches of actual objects that Heap of Birds included on the poles, along with graphic design elements like the double spiral taken from ancestral Puebloan cultures.


While most of the imagery on the trees refers to historical events, some is specific to Heaps of Birds and his family. On the tenth tree, the magpies flying upward represent the name “Heap of Birds.”

Words as Image
Words as Image

Although words are used literally as text that describes historic events, they also serve as design elements. Heap of Birds chose varied styles of lettering to add mood and visual interest.

Tree Forms
Tree Forms

Heap of Birds used three styles of forked tree forms in Wheel, inspired in part by a tree that once stood at the site. The forms also refer to the forked poles that hold up a Sun Dance lodge. The artist’s original drawings show twelve trees in the circle, but the final artwork has only ten. According to Heap of Birds, Wheel is his creative expression, and he omitted two poles so that it would not be read as religious.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.