books for creative kids
  • Contemporary Art in the Classroom: Unconventional Materials
  • Sarah Heffernan
Contemporary Art in the Classroom: Unconventional Materials

By using unconventional materials, common objects like a toilet, a bowl, or a balloon animal can become something comical, dramatic, even a little unsettling. When representing common objects through sculpture, their material qualities are often taken for granted: clouds are light and fluffy, cars are hard and sleek, fish are scaly and shiny. What if we instead made sculptures of clouds out of metal, cars out of sand, and fish out of feathers? Using unconventional materials like these challenge and change the meaning of each sculpture. This is a great line of thinking to open up little ones imaginations (why can't a fish be made of feathers in a magical, make believe world?) and to ground them in reasons why materials are attached to certain objects in our world (why couldn't a fish with feathers survive in our oceans?).

We've compiled a short, introductory list of artists that have challenged conventional representation in the art world through sculpture and installation, so you can explore real examples of these types of works with your little one. These artists use unconventional materials to represent everyday objects, radically changing their meaning.

The works below feature absurd materials to manipulate in some way the reflection of reality, providing the viewer with a new way of seeing and engaging. Claes Oldenberg's Soft Toilet recreates a porcelain toilet out of deflated vinyl. Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog transforms a small, relatively fragile balloon into a huge, unmovable stainless steel sculpture. Yves Kline reproduces a large ancient marble statue (Nike of Samothrace) out of dry, ultramarine blue pigment on a diminutive scale. Meret Oppenheim transforms the common teacup into an unsettling fur covered sculpture. Deborah Butterfield represents a strong horse with small branches, pieced together, creating a hollow horse shape. 

Encourage your child to push the boundaries of their understanding of what art has to look like. Think about what materials you could use to transform something ordinary into something surreal. Specifically, think about the ways that changing the material of an object changes how an object can be used (would you want to drink out of a fur teacup?). Does it create new ways to use this object? Talk about why the artists chose each material, and how the choices affect the meaning and perception of the piece.  


Claes Oldenberg, Soft Toilet


Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Blue)


Yves Kline, La Victoire de Samothrace 


Meret Oppenheim, Luncheon in Fur


Deborah Butterfield, Untitled

Use these works as a jumping off point to talk about intention, representation, and perception with your child. Make your own surreal pieces by getting creative about what materials you use and thinking outside the box!

  • Sarah Heffernan

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