Introduction to Sculpture & Public Art

Arts Education - Any Grade

Enduring Understanding

Public art experience can be enhanced with relevant information that leads to a better understanding of its context, value and meaning.


Guiding Questions

Why and how do artists make sculptures? How can sculpture be experienced and how is that experience different from other kinds of art? What value does public art bring to the community?


Slideshow Information

Historical Context: Historically in Western Art, sculpture was realistic, figurative, and for many centuries it was limited to stone carving, clay, bronze and some wood carving. Over the centuries, sculpture was often created for religious purposes including sculptures of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, or Christian saints for instance. Rulers favored sculptures of themselves as expressions of power in the cities or countries where they ruled. They were also portraits of real or mythic people, including ancestors especially in ancient Rome. Sculpture for many centuries looked like real people, and its purpose was to bring stories, people and history to life in various materials.

Ancient Greek sculpture of goddess Athena: Mythical figures of religion for temples and churches

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius: Bronze sculpture from ancient Rome, the year 175 CE. Communicating power of the emperor. Compare the image of the sculpture in a museum and its copy placed in an urban context as it once stood looking out over the people.

David from the story of David and Goliath: One of many works Gian Bernini made for the Catholic Church. Note that Baroque art was emotional, dramatic, intense, and never calm.

Photography and its Impact: Since the invention of the camera in 1839, artists were no longer restricted to being the crafters of reality or copying nature. They were freed to begin to challenge the limits of art and human creativity, and this led to many different movements and voices that continue today. In the decades that followed art was pushed in more creative and experimental directions entering into what we call the ‘modern’ era in art.

Pioneer in Early Modernism – Rodin: Rodin was a pioneer in sculpture just before modern art began to grow in Europe. Rodin’s style was controversial because he showed emotion and flaws, his sculptures were textured and rugged, with a lot of light and shadow, not smooth and flawless. He believed one can see a person’s character in their body. Rodin’s sculptures were modeled in clay before making a mold to cast them in bronze, or carved in stone. His work The Thinker, 1902 showed that the act of thinking is not just in his face, but every clenched muscle –  even his toes! Clenched Hands, 1885 took sculpture much further from traditional styles by showing only sculptural fragments as a way to appreciate the human body just for its own form rather than as a portrait.

• Assemblage, Cubism – Picasso: Picasso with his friend Georges Braque invented Cubism around 1912. They were looking for new ways to show reality, challenging the norm on how to show all perspectives or angles of a subject at the same time. This creates a way of rethinking art’s place in the world. Maquette of Guitar, 1912 is one of the major works to shift sculpture in the 20th century showing all angles of the parts of a guitar, re-imagined. This kind of art was very radical in its time and inspired many other artists over the next 100 years.

Ready Mades – Duchamp: Marcel Duchamp turned the art world upside down when he began to playfully use everyday manufactured materials as sculptural materials, showing how industrial and consumer objects could be valued as aesthetic sculptures rather than functional objects. Bicycle Wheel, 1913 also had the element of movement that was key to it, as it spun and attracted the eye like a fire in a fireplace. Another radical ready made was The Fountain, 1917, where he selected and presented a urinal as sculpture in an art exhibition, turning it on its side to be seen as sculpture instead of a plumbing fixture. It is a major work of the 20th century that further pushed the definition of art beyond craft, showing how art does not need to be made by hand to be art. Instead, an artist’s idea is also a form of creativity, not simply what the hands make. He was the grandfather of conceptual art in the 1970s who were inspired by his ideas in 1917. Since then, ready made art and materials have continued in art history and art today, inspired by him.

• Futurism and Movement – Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 is a sculpture by Umberto Boccioni showing a human form moving. In the 1910s, futurists loved and idealized movement and machines, hoping to move Italy away from its past and glorify modernity.

Surrealism – Dali & Oppenheim: Surrealists in the 1920s were inspired by the mystery and strangeness of dreams, and wanted to explore those ideas in painting, drawing, sculpture, film and more. Often surrealist sculpture is odd and unusual, bringing together different things that, when combined, become  creepy, surprising or even humorous. Surrealism continues today, using sculpted materials and every day materials like these works.

Abstraction, Minimalism – Judd: Abstract art (of which there are many styles) emerged in the 1910s, and looks at form, color, line, and how the eye or brain experiences these elements when we are not distracted by realism or stories like we see in representational art. For some artists like Cubists it offers a way to see all angles at once, for others shape and color are the purest art. One group in the 1960s called the minimalists wanted to create pure unemotional art that was pure form, line and color without personal expression like Abstraction Expressionists in the 1950s. These minimalist works were intended to be pure experiences of art for our bodies moving around each sculpture in space, without barrier between viewer and sculpture.

Pop Art – Warhol: Inspired by popular culture of the 1960s and 70s, Andy Warhol used the material and color of everyday life. He is well known for painting celebrities and popular products like tomato soup cans because everyone knew celebrities or ate that soup, due to a flourishing celebrity and consumer culture. He also made objects in his studio (named The Factory) that intentionally tried to imitate products exactly, mimicking those that make products like Brillo by creating an art machine. A modern day pop artist would be Jeff Koons or Douglas Coupland.

Contemporary Artists – 

Rachel Whiteread:  Whiteread made a concrete cast of the inside of a three-story Victorian terrace house, including stairs and bay windows rather than the exterior. The public art installation is in a quiet neighborhood in England and when viewers see it they instantly are taken back in time to wonder at the house, the imprints of each fireplace, each window, and to imagine the rooms that are gone. This is a truly new and seemingly impossible way to experience a home, and it continues to fascinate.

Ron Mueck: Ron is an Australian who works with the hyper real, playing with scale both larger and smaller than life but every detail in his sculptures make them startling in their life-like appearance. They are almost alive, but strange or uncanny due to their size.

Public Art – Not all public art is sculpture, it can be painting, murals, graffiti, performance, or if there are many pieces that go together it can be called an installation. Public art can also be located outside cities and urban centres.

Richard Serra: His work Tilted Arc, New York City 1981 is a minimalist sculpture in a public space that sliced through every day spaces. The public had to move around it, respond to it, could not ignore it. It was an interruption in daily life and habits, giving viewers a new and unexpected experience in urban spaces. When moving around it, the look and shape of the arc changed.

Andy Goldsworthy is a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist producing site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings using materials found in nature. They include flowers, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, stone, twigs, and thorns. Goldsworthy is generally considered the founder of modern rock balancing. For his ephemeral works, Goldsworthy often uses only his bare hands, teeth, and found tools to prepare and arrange the materials; however, for his permanent sculptures, he has employed the use of machine tools.

Christos and Jeanne Claude were an American artist duo (Jeanne Claude died in 2009) who created monumental sized environmental works with fabric. Their work was about the visual experience of a site concealed in a way that seems impossible–to wrap a government building or an island in fabric, how is that impossible idea possible? Their works create experiences of joy, awe and beauty offering new ways of seeing familiar landscapes. How do you think they would do it? They would sew and wrap fabric around buildings and through spaces, where fabric isn’t often used. Their work was at times controversial in some cities, but astounding in scale and seeing it in person seemed to defy the impossible.

Vancouver Biennale is a non-profit charitable organization that exhibits great art in public space, creating a catalyst for learning, community engagement and social action. Biennale exhibitions are unique in the world in that they feature sculpture, new media, film, music and performance. Biennale exhibitions transform the urban landscape into an Open Air Museum, creating unexpected and globally inspired cultural experiences where people live, play, work and transit.


Mind Opening

Choose or devise practices to encourage students to be open to new experiences and ways of thinking in your classroom. For example, the MindUP in-school program.


Other Resources

10 Playful Public Works of Art by Alison Nastasi for


Learning to Learn:

Shared Insights

In small groups, share your experience with sculpture from past encounters:

Where and When? Size – Note down the locations, reason for visit and approximate dimensions

Shape/Materials/Texture/Colour – Note any physical properties that stand out

Experience/Response – How do you feel? What do you think it is about? How is it different from viewing a painting/photography/Video?

Lead a discussion about experiencing sculptures:

Sculpture is 3 dimensional art in the round, demanding that we the viewer move our body to see it from all angles to fully experience the work. Sculpture offers a form in the same physical space as where we stand, it is in our world as a body beside us, which is a very different experience than looking at a painting for instance that shows us a world or a scene separated from our own. The styles and materials of sculpture have evolved over the centuries and especially in the last 160 years, but no matter the style all sculpture is a conversation between us and the form before us, together with material, context and site.


Inquiry Challenges

Visual and Physical Experience – Elements of Art: What makes sculpture different than other kinds of art? Following the idea that sculptures are works intended to offer both visual and physical experience, visitors should experience how they feel and how their body relates to the work in addition to what is seen and what they think about the artwork.

Project an image of Human Structures Vancouver or other Biennale artworks and challenge the students to come up with terms and concepts that describe this sculpture. Discuss how these terms help them talk about the work.

Review the elements of art as a group: line, shape and form, scale, balance, texture, colour and space. Discuss how these terms are also applicable in science, mathematics and everyday life.

Techniques: How can sculpture be made? The processes are either subtractive (material is removed or carved out) or additive (material is added).

Carving: Carving involves cutting or chipping away a shape from a mass of stone, wood, or other hard material. Carving is a subtractive process whereby material is systematically eliminated from the outside in. Show Biennale Exhibition: Public Furniture | Urban Trees (Hugo Franca, Brazil) as an example.

Casting: Sculptures that are cast are made from a material that is melted down—usually a metal—that is then poured into a mold. The mold is allowed to cool, thereby hardening the metal, usually bronze. Casting is an additive process. Show Biennale Legacy: A-Maze-ing Laughter (Yue Minjun, China) as an example.

Modeling: Modeled sculptures are created when a soft or malleable material (such as clay) is built up (sometimes over an armature) and shaped to create a form. Modeling is an additive process.

Assembling: Sculptors gather and join different materials to create an assembled sculpture. Assembling is an additive process. View Biennale Exhibition: Human Structures Vancouver (Jonathan Borofsky, USA) as an example.

When making the visit to the Biennale Exhibition, the students can reflect on what techniques and materials were used for making the sculpture(s) and discuss the reasons the artist(s) made these choices taking into consideration design, geography, cost, strength and aesthetic.

Continuity & Change of ArtReferencing the unit plan slideshow,

Historical Context: Lead a discussion on Why do people make sculpture? What can sculpture be made of?

Photography & its Impact: Discuss how the invention of camera in 1839 changed human creativity.

Pioneer in Early Modernism – Rodin: Compare The Thinker to mythical or idealized human figures in sculpture in the late 18ths. What differences can be noted? Challenge students to look at The Thinker paying attention to the muscles of the body and the rock he sits on. Is he relaxed? What kind of emotions or thoughts might he be having?  Compare The Thinker, 1902 with Clenched Hands, 1885 and ask the students to share what typse of emotions are invoked by each piece.

Assemblage, Cubism – Picasso: Ask the students if the Maquette for Guitar looks like a guitar to them and why do they think Picasso presented the guitar that way. Ask students to select objects that are interesting to them and talk about about what the object looks like from different angles.

Ready Mades – Duchamp: Ask students to comment if they think the objects are art and provide supporting reasons. Ask students to take up these two challenges: What interesting forms and shapes in everyday objects would you present as an art idea to the class? What objects can we look at differently as Duchamp did?

Futurism and Movement – Boccioni: Ask the students to comment on the Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 by Umberto Boccioni. Ask students what is it about the form that tells us it is in motion? Introduce the idea that in 1910s, futurists idealized movement and machines.

Surrealism – Oppenheim & Dali: Bring up the image of Object by Oppenheim and note the strangeness of a fur-lined tea cup we cannot really use, and the strangeness of the lobster telephone by Salvador Dali–they become especially odd when you imagine using the phone, and the lobster tickles your ear….! Ask the students: what do they think the artists are trying to convey? What would they associate these objects with?

Abstraction, Minimalism – Judd: Ask the students to comment and share their personal experience with the sparse, minimalist room sized installations in the Judd image.

Pop Art – Warhol: Ask the students which objects in today’s popular culture might inspire modern day pop artists such as Jeff Koons or Douglas Coupland?

Contemporary Artists – Whiteread and Mueck:  Lead a discussion to compare the hviewer experience for Whiteread and Mueck. Compare contemporary expressions of sculpture and public art with those found throughout history.

• Public Art:

Show the image of Tilted Arc and bring up the issue of dealing with negative public feedback.  Why might that be? What do you think it would be like to experience it? Tilted Arc was eventually removed in 1989, but because it was designed for this site in New York, removing it meant destroying the work forever. Sometimes public art is controversial, can you imagine both sides of the debate?

After reviewing the range of public art images by Serra, Goldsworthy, and Claude, ask the students to reflect on the following questions: Why might an artist want to put their work outside? Why would an artist want to put their work in that place? How does a public artwork change our experience of the space? Where have you seen public art in Vancouver?


Student Creation & Taking Actions

Consider creating art projects with the students that explore additive and subtractive techniques so they may experience firsthand the kinds of challenges, problem solving, questions and possibilities each technique provides. Apply what they learned in their own work to the Biennale work the students visit–why do you think the artist made these choices, what do you think it would have been like making this work?



Teacher and students can reflect on their entire learning process by revisiting the Guiding Questions.


Ideas for Cross-Curricular Access

Science & Mathematics: Apply the elements of art – line, shape and form, scale, balance, texture, colour and space to the study of Science and Mathematics.

Social Studies: Relate the timeline of the continuity and change in Art to social economic changes during the same time period.


Written by: Jessa Alston-O’Connor, MA, Art History

©2014 Vancouver Biennale