Boxes and Collage

I first encounter the shadow boxes of American artist Joseph Cornell 91903-1972) during a visit of the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum back in 2010. The paraphernalia, the surrealist assemblages never cease to amaze me and I can’t help but feel drawn to those small scenes.

“Setting for a fairy tale” Joseph Cornell - Collection of MOMA - credits MOMA

“Setting for a fairy tale” Joseph Cornell - Collection of MOMA - credits MOMA

‘Habitat for a Group Shooting Gallery” Joseph Cornell, 1943 - photo credits Royal Academy

‘Habitat for a Group Shooting Gallery” Joseph Cornell, 1943 - photo credits Royal Academy

Before talking about the artist, I showed the children how to draw a 3-D box, trying to introduce some elements of perspective. Their warm-up exercise was to draw from observation the composition of wooden blocks I arranged in the middle of the table. Those first few minutes are not easy for the children, but I think this acts as a nice transition (They have to direct their focus, they start tracing and they get quiet for a few minutes, I can get a few ideas out there while they do, throwing a few key ideas or why is it we do this kind of drawing). The intention was also to allow them to create some personal matter to include later in their boxes. I can also get a sense of how fluid/ or not drawing is for them. I realize that 3-D drawing is tricky for children that young, but I was happily surprised when some of them gave it a try. One little girl got it quickly, and started drawing things in the drawn cube and around, creating a whole composition in a few minutes.

I showed the group (6 children and 5 adults) a slideshow of Joseph Cornell’s selected shadow boxes. I asked what the children noticed (A lot of found objects, music sheets, images of birds). The children dived into the process of creating a spectacle in this “Saturday morning in the Studio” class. Their parents help them cut the provided images ( from magazines as well as some of my own drawings) and work on their composition. It was very interesting to see them choose the images that were relevant to them. As they worked side by side (two kids on each side of the tables, friends or not), they would peek into their neighbor’s box, see what they were using and how, and then choose to use one particular element but in a different way (wonderful appropriation!). The Xerox copies of a notebook spine became a swing for tree in one box whereas it was used as tree trunks in another one. An arch used as a door became a handle in another box. Most of the children liked to add the painted circles and they were referred to as planets. Parents and children worked really well together!