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Studio Art 122: Introduction to Sculpture

Stephen Mohring
Faculty Member: Stephen Mohring
Class Description:
The ability to build structures that reflect or alter the environment is a basic defining characteristic of our species. In this class we explore creative construction in three dimensions using a variety of media, including plaster, wood, and steel. Using both natural and architectural objects for inspiration, we will examine and manipulate form, space, and expressive content to develop a deeper understanding of this core trait and reawaken our experience of the spaces we inhabit.

This is an introductory sculpture class, with no prerequisites – open to all enrolled at Carleton. The course serves as the prerequisite for all further study in sculpture or woodworking and as one of the two possible prerequisites for ceramics or metals classes (the other being an intro drawing class). In the class my main goal is to help students engage the basic issues of construction and design in three dimensions with confidence. I spend a great deal of time focusing on translating visual information into language – helping students to describe what they see more clearly and with more precision. This work is paired with technical challenges so students can experience the parallel process, converting their ideas into physical objects. All the students start with an assignment in plaster – a material few are familiar with, which helps to equalize the playing field as far a shop skills are concerned. This is the assignment we see being critiqued in the video. The assignment is based on our first few classes, where we talk about objects the students bring to class.

5 object assignment

Choose five objects that resonate for you structurally and visually. Half man made half natural. These objects must intrigue you in some profound way. WARNING: you will be working with them for a while. This intrigue should be describable to the class - i.e. try to stay away from objects that are intriguing in a way that is unapparent to a non biased observer.

Bring these objects to the next class.

Things to think about: Open and Closed Forms, Positive and Negative Space, Quality of Line, Proportion of Object and Proportion of Major Shapes Within Object, Speed of Forms, Texture, Hard? Soft? Forgiving? Angular? Heavy? Massive? Hollow?. . . . . . .

Look inside the object: What is the structure? Where is the motion? How does this thing exist in space and why is that interesting? CONCENTRATE on what it is that is intriguing to you about these objects visually or metaphorically. What is the essence of the intrigue of this object? Why is that? How does it work?

DUE Tuesday : 3 plaster maquetes. You should be choosing only one object from your five, and looking for a separate aspect of intrigue for each 3D-sketch/maquette/model. So, 3 small plaster thingies based on three separate aspects of intrigue that you found in ONE of your 5 objects

Due The Tuesday after the Tuesday after that:Choose one of your plaster sketches that is particularly challenging or engaging. Develop the essence of that sketch in a larger plaster object or group of objects. Though you may refer back to the original object it is more important that you concentrate on the possibilities presented by the plaster sketch and the thoughts that it provokes.

The rest of the class develops directly from this process of deep and concentrated looking and physical experimentation. From here the students will be introduced to the fundamentals of woodworking and steel construction, with 2 more major projects in the remaining 6/7 weeks. Depending on how I read the trajectory of the class, (group dynamics, basic skills, general alertness) I vary the next assignments to fit how I think the group will work best. Most often however, the assignment after this one is the Gerund assignment.


ger×und (jèr¹end) noun

Abbr. ger.


1. In Latin, a noun derived from a verb and having all case forms except the nominative.

2. In other languages, a verbal noun analogous to the Latin gerund, such as the English form ending in -ing when used as a noun, as in singing in We admired the choir's singing.

[Late Latin gerundium, from Latin gerundum, variant of gerendum, gerundive of gerere, to carry on.]

— ge×run¹di×al (je-rùn¹dê-el) adjective


Most objects have a particular sense, peculiar to their construction. A building can be inviting, frightening, a table can be uplifting, supporting, reassuring ... continue looking at how things are put together, what are the key compositional elements that make them what they are? What makes a composition work? How is it when a structure speaks successfully? What is it for an object to emote clearly?

using these ideas
and at least two materials
paying specific attention to the combination of those materials and what that can do

Make A Gerund

The final project often focuses on reading and analyzing architectural forms, and allows for the most individual freedom in material choice and scale. There is also a midterm presentation (short 10 minute powerpoint slide show) where each student presents the work of a contemporary artist they admire.

Stephen Mohring's Reflections

The process of making this class video was very enlightening for me. The first question that vexed me was how the heck do we film this damn thing, given the highly mobile nature of my teaching. This led me to think very deeply in a way I have not before about my use of the classroom, and to re-evaluate my 'choreography' in the space while I teach. I am still chewing on the videos, trying to read the students to see if what I think is exciting or odd even registers on their faces. I can't imagine a better way to get a real handle on how your actions are seen by the class, but boy, the first few screenings were quite difficult to watch.

The other great thing about this process was getting to focus on other professors' styles without intruding into their classrooms. The Heisenberg principal (or at least the social science reinterpretation of it) really plays out in most classroom visits – viewing a class inevitably alters the class in some way... But here (especially after the students have gotten used to the cameras sitting there unattended) the effect seems diminished and a fairly pure version of what happens in the classroom comes through. It has been reassuring to see the same problems emerge in completely different subjects, and ever since I have been pondering just how much the mastery of our core disciplines matter – and how perhaps our real challenge in the liberal arts lies in an ongoing exploration of the act of teaching.

Watch/Download Full Video (MP4 Video 103.8MB Jul31 17): 39:40 min

Class Video

Teaching with the Body
Chapter 1: Teaching with the Body (MP4 Video 36.7MB Jul28 17) (3:58 min)
Stephen describes how his physical presentation enhances both the affective learning of students as well as developing their awareness of more bodily ways of "knowing."

Unlocking the Learning
Chapter 2: Unlocking the Learning (MP4 Video 5.8MB Jul28 17) (2:13 min)
Stephen talks about the dangers and limitations of imitating the teacher and the importance of re-awakening an engagement with the physical world.

Obstacles / Preconceptions
Chapter 3: Obstacles/Preconceptions (MP4 Video 6MB Jul28 17) (4:41 min)
Stephen considers the factors that inhibit students from feeling comfortable making physical objects and how an instructor can help mitigate those factors.

Learning the Vocabulary of Critique
Chapter 4: Learning the Vocabulary of Critique (MP4 Video 11.3MB Jul28 17) (4:53 min)
Stephen discusses the limitation of words as a means of exploring physical objects and the need to push students beyond the use of metaphor in their descriptions of objects.

Moving Beyond Narrative
Chapter 5: Moving Beyond Narrative (MP4 Video 22MB Jul28 17) (9:23 min)
Stephen describes how students learn to describe what they are seeing, initially through narrative, but ultimately through a new vocabulary of common physical experiences. Stephen also talks about how he prepares for a critique session.

Student Critique and Student Anxiety
Chapter 6: Student Critique and Student Anxiety (MP4 Video 23.8MB Jul28 17) (8:56 min)
Stephen talks about how he structures the classroom critiques to minimize the chances for hurt feelings and maximize the shared learning about looking with intention. Stephen also discusses how he evaluates student creative work in general.

The Teacher in the Mirror
Chapter 7: The Teacher in the Mirror (MP4 Video 12.4MB Jul28 17) (5:04 min)
Stephen reflects on how he has become more comfortable in his teaching role and how that ease has improved student learning.