Wire Sculpture


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Art Sculpture Instruction

Innovative Wire Sculpture Workshop

Plus: Teaching Innovative Wire Sculpture to Kids

By Elizabeth Berrien | Updated January 27, 2019


Cat, Elizabeth Berrien's first wire sculpture.Cat, Elizabeth Berrien's first wire sculpture. If you think you can make a better wire sculpture, some day you may be a professional wire sculptor too. This wire sculpture workshop will help unleash your creativity.


Part 1: Introduction

Welcome to the innovative wire sculpture movement! Innovative wire sculptors invent their own new forms of wire sculpture as they explore. They take pride in being different and creating something totally new.

I learned the process of innovation in 1968, from the late Kenneth G. Curran. He got me started; I have been my own teacher ever since. Using Mr. Curran's method, I invented my own innovative form of wire sculpture. As a pioneer in the field, I raised my innovative wire sculpture to museum quality standards. In 2004 I founded the worldwide guild, Wire Sculpture International, and received the prestigious Victor Jacoby Award for innovation in art.

In this course I will hand on to you what I have learned from Kenneth Curran so you can be an innovative wire sculptor, too.


Wire Art vs. Wire Sculpture

The term "wire art" makes me twinge. Granted, working with wire is an art. But the term feels dumbed down. Perhaps some teachers don't think younger students can handle the word sculpture? Hogwash! If you've been calling it wire art and intend to get enmeshed making your own, respect the medium and respect yourself. Start calling it by its proper name, wire sculpture.

To re-educate the neurons as to proper terminology, your first project is to create the words WIRE SCULPTURE in wire. Post this noble first creation on the wall as a self-titled work, and you're on your way!


Wire Sculpture Materials

Paddle wire
Wire sculpture tools — Paddle wire. All you need to make a wire sculpture is a pair of wire cutters and your own two hands! Many serious wire sculptors feel wire sculpture is preferable to the term wire art, much more descriptive of the 3D process.


Galvanized steel wire.
Galvanized steel wire. One of the many, many types of wire you can use for making wire sculpture in this wire sculpture workshop.


Recycled wire.
Recycled wire. Innovative wire sculpture is an exciting field because virtually any kind of wire can be used for the purpose of making art. Wire Sculpture is as diverse a field as drawing and painting, and it even goes 3D! We hope this wire sculpture workshop makes you feel very innovative. This recycled wire came in three exciting layers: foil, plastic and copper!


© Elizabeth Berrien
This is all you need to make a wire sculpture, wire and some cutters. If you teach wire sculpture workshops, your class can make great wire sculptures with just wire cutters and their own hands. Teaching students to call the medium wire sculpture rather than wire art will improve their english skills, too.

With apologies to chain art stores that sell a wide array of fancy pliers and wires, I must speak heresy: Most of what I've seen for wire art supplies appears grossly over-priced and over-packaged. Be especially suspicious of anything sold as Sculpture Wire, usually packaged in shockingly small quantity at several times its bulk cost.

Folks, ALL Wire is Sculpture Wire! The best and cheapest wire in the chain art stores is over in the floral department, sold as florist wire or paddle wire. Your start-up money will go quite a bit further if you make your first selections at the hardware store. For just a few dollars, you can get a voluptuous roll of dark annealed "tie wire" aka baling wire or bailing wire. It's nice and cheap, but may leave a smudgy layer of machine oil on your hands. Sometimes it comes in a silvery, galvanized version, much easier to clean up. Ask the hardware guys and gals to show you the rack of wire assortments in the picture wire section. You'll find more of the dark annealed and galvanized wire, plus copper, brass, and aluminum. Look around a little more, and you'll find wire clothesline coated in colored plastic. Craft supply stores have beading wire in lots of shiny colors. Store-bought electrical wire is expensive, sold by the foot. Then again, the phone company sometimes gives away phone wire for class projects.

Starting to feel inspired? Buy a few different types and sizes of wire. When you get home, play around awhile. As you experiment, you'll find that your hands and eyes are happiest with a certain type and range of wire. Continue to explore with this personal wire, saving the rest of your assortment for later.


Tools

One pair of wire cutters of a size to fit in your hand comfortably. That's all, folks! I used a pair of Sears Craftsman $10.00 wire cutters to make most of the sculptures on my web site. Sure, every year or so I break a pair... and Sears replaces them for free, earning my sincere endorsement!

As for pliers, skip 'em, they're just a crutch. I prefer not to use pliers at all; they just get in the way. My own two hands are the only shaping tools for every sculpture on this wirelady web site. The only use I have for pliers is to grab those wire bits that are too short to handle with my fingers alone. You'll develop your own unique style faster if you don't use any pliers at all. Don't bother with high-priced flush cutters until if and when you've got a genuine reason to do so. I haven't used them since the 1970s.


Safety First

The One Wire Sculpture Rule Written in Stone: Don't Put Your Eye Out!

Safety glasses are a good idea, but they're not 100% effective. A long, loose end of rogue wire can still whip around and through the ventilation holes in the side of the glasses. This is why especially at first, you're safest working with foot-long, pipe-cleaner lengths of wire. So cut it small. Or be truly safe, and start with pipe cleaners! Once you've developed a reliable proximity sense, you can gradually increase the lengths you work with. But be careful out there... even after decades working wire I still have some scary scrapes and pokes.

This is the end of Part One, enough to get you started. In Part Two I'll share the wire sculpture start-up instruction I received in 1968 from Kenneth Curran, my creative mentor.


Part 2: Getting Started with Wire

Wire Sculptor Elizabeth BerrienWire Sculptor Elizabeth Berrien inside a 13ft wire sculpture work in progress for science fiction author Larry Niven. The wire sculptor makes any different kinds of wire sculptures for home and garden. Small wire sculptures make excellent gifts. You can buy complex and expressive museum quality wire animals from Elizabeth Berrien. You can also learn to make wire sculptures of your own.

I learned the process of innovation in 1968, from the late Kenneth G. Curran. Using Mr. Curran's method, I invented my own innovative approach to wire sculpture and achieved museum quality standards. Ken Curran was wry, sardonic, thoughtful and minimalist. He was an astute mentor. He gave enough information to get me experimenting, but insisted that I learn how to learn, developing a lifelong habit of creative problem solving. The two major elements to be aware of in wire sculpture are design and structure. Design is the form and impact of the wire sculpture; what it looks like. Structure is the degree to which it holds together.


Design In Wire Sculpture

Wire is a mobile inkline. Instead of drawing with a pen, you draw with the wire itself. There are no rules whatsoever, no right way to create with wire. Think of all the different ways artists have expressed themselves with a paintbrush. Then think again.

Wire and cutters.
This is all you need to make a wire sculpture, wire and some cutters.


Cutters and wire.


Paddle wire.
Paddle wire

Pipe cleaners.
Even "pipe cleaners" are fair game for making wire sculpture.


Since wire sculpture is such an unpopulated medium, there's infinite room to make your mark by coming up with a distinctively different approach. Don't jump on the bandwagon by imitating the works of Alexander Calder. This great innovator, who introduced contemporary wire sculpture to the world, stands alone. You should too. Don't be a Calder Clone. Honor wire sculpture, and honor the spirit of Alexander Calder, by working as independently as possible. It's easier than you think, and truly rewarding.

Adopt a zen approach to starting out with wire. Enjoy it for its own sake, be receptive to the different effects possible. Don't worry about style. If you get hooked and really work at it over time, the very personal ways you've developed to make the wire work will manifest as something intangible, special and unique to yourself. Style will emerge as a by-product of technique.


Structure In Wire Sculpture

Wire sculpture can be made from a single continuous strand, many strands, or even wire mesh (remember, there are no rules or restrictions). If you just loop a wire around freeform, it may hold its shape...for a while. The weaker its structure, the more protection it will need to keep from getting distorted.

Don't fret about structure — enjoy the concept that there are endless ways to invent that can be yours alone. It's a wonderful long-term puzzle, a true problem-solving dialog. Focus on getting acquainted with the wire. Doodle, make shapes, unravel them, reform them until you've got something you like. So it's a little floppy? If you like it, that doesn't matter. Hang it from a bit of monofilament, or keep in safe in a glass case.

There are so many ways to incorporate structure into wire. Many wire sculptors weld and solder to lock joints in place. On a smaller scale, there's also glue or epoxy. Again, no rules, no limits! When you're just starting out, though, work the wire with just your hands.


Three Wire Exercise

The One Wire Sculpture Rule Written in Stone: Don't Put Your Eye Out!

Start with three pieces of soft wire in 12-inch lengths and a pair of wire cutters. If you have an assortment of wire, start with the type that looks most attractive to you. If you brought along extra pliers, jigs, or other items, set them aside. You don't need them. Your most versatile wire sculpture tools are always with you, at the ends of your arms. You want to get as direct a feel for the wire as possible, with as few distracting gimmicks as possible.

Safety glasses are a good idea, but they're not 100% effective. Wire can still get through the ventilation holes. So be sure to cut your wires small.

For your first few sessions with wire, focus on seeing how many different things you can do with just three wires. Doodle around, make little cartoon figures. Or, if there's something you enjoy looking at, a flower or a bug, look at it very closely and see if you can make something like it out of the wire.

As you mess with the wire, your hands will make decisions for you. Let them! Your fingers may connect the wire as they loop, snag, twist, braid or kink the wires to hold them in place as you work on your "wire drawing". As you train yourself to draw with wire instead of ink, your hands will invent new ways to handle wire. Your first wire sculpture projects may be really flimsy, and you may think they look clumsier than you want. You probably felt that way the first time you tried to draw with a pencil or crayon, too. Don't you wish you'd saved those early efforts, so you could see how far you've come? Well, you're going to set aside your early works so you have a little "research trail" of your evolution as a wire sculptor.

Elizabeth Berrien's first wire sculpture.My first wire sculpture. Can you tell it's a cat? Lucky my parents saved it for me, I would've thrown it out!

If you have an assortment of different kinds of wire, try the three wire exercise with different types. Copper, including plastic coated telephone wire, is soft and pliable. This may make it easier to shape. It may also make it a little harder to hold together as a structure. Pay attention to how different wires feel in your hands. Is there a texture, smooth or rough, that you really enjoy? For instance, steel will have a different feel than copper. Try thin wires, also thicker wires. Which feel better to hold and to shape? Follow your instinct, and spend more time with the wire you really like. Don't throw out the wire you like less, though. Store it for the future. Instead of thinking, That wire doesn't work well for me, think, that wire doesn't work well for me... yet! Once you've achieved mastery of your "personal wire", you'll discover that other kinds of wire are much easier to work with.

Any time you're just not satisfied with what you make, it's okay to take it apart and start over. With practice, it'll come faster and smoother, your creations will get more like you intended. But you'll be surprised how much character even your startup squiggles have! Hang on to them, use them as minor ornaments around the house. Give some to people you think might enjoy them.

There's no rule that says you can only make wire sculpture at a certain time, in a certain setting. You can mess with wire while you're sitting at a table, or in an easy chair, or standing up. I don't leave home without a bit of wire and a pair of cutters. That way I'm never bored if the flight I'm waiting for is late, or the line at the post office is twenty people long.

If you get totally immersed in wire sculpture, stay careful. otherwise, in your excitement to create, you may get careless and risk poking your eye. When I started out, my hands were always raw, scratched up and blistered. Eventually I developed callouses, like a guitarist, and I gradually learned to "dodge" the wires. If you work wire a lot, you also have to be aware of carpal tunnel inflammation. And you don't ever want the instant-wakeup of wire under a fingernail...just stay careful, stay alert.

This is end of Part Two. Get out there and mess with wire! Explore, innovate, make mistakes and learn from them!


Part 3: Teaching Innovative Wire Sculpture to Kids

This lesson plan is intended for students in grades 2-12.


Materials

Paddle wire.Paddle wire. With apologies to chain art stores that sell a wide array of fancy pliers and wires, I must speak heresy: Most of what I've seen for wire art supplies appears grossly over-priced and over-packaged. Be especially suspicious of anything sold as Sculpture Wire, usually packaged in shockingly small quantity at several times its bulk cost. All you need to make a wire sculpture is a pair of wire cutters and your own two hands! Many serious wire sculptors feel wire sculpture is preferable to the term wire art, much more descriptive of the 3D process.

HOT TIP: Phone company often donates colorful phone wire for class projects!

Folks, ALL Wire is Sculpture Wire! The best and cheapest wire in the chain art stores is over in the floral department, sold as florist wire or paddle wire. Your materials budget will go quite a bit further if you make your first selections at the hardware store. For just a few dollars, you can get a voluptuous roll of dark annealed "tie wire" aka baling wire or bailing wire. It's nice and cheap, but may leave a smudgy layer of machine oil on the hands. It also comes in a silvery, galvanized version, much easier to clean up. Don't fret if you can't find exactly the color of wire you're looking for — wire sculpture projects can be painted different colors when they're finished.

Ask the hardware guys and gals to show you the rack of wire assortments in the picture wire section. You'll find more of the dark annealed and galvanized wire, plus copper, brass, and aluminum. Look around a little more, and you'll find wire clothesline coated in colored plastic. Craft supply stores have beading wire in lots of shiny colors. Store-bought electrical wire is expensive, sold by the foot. By exploring salvage yards and recycle centers, you stretch your materials budget and teach your students the value of recycling.

For cross-over educating, students in grades 5-12 can compare the costs per foot of different kinds of wire, depending on the manufacturer and type of packaging. You may also point out that some of the most expensive "sculpture wire" comes in ridiculously small amounts with excessive amounts of non-recyclable packaging.


Tools

Wire cutters of a size to fit the hand comfortably. That's all, folks! I used a pair of Sears Craftsman $10.00 wire cutters to make most of the sculptures on my web site. Sure, every year or so I break a pair... and Sears replaces them for free, earning my sincere endorsement!

For wire sculpture workshops and classes, I set out one or two pairs of wire cutters per table of students. Cutting wire is not a major part of the process, and it's always good to encourage sharing.

As for pliers, skip 'em, they're just a crutch. I prefer not to use pliers at all; they just get in the way. My own two hands are the only shaping tools for every sculpture in my wirelady web site. The only use I have for pliers is to grab those wire bits that are too short to handle with my fingers alone. Your students will develop their own unique style faster if they don't use any pliers at all. No fancy store-bought jigs, either — the kids' nimble fingers can do the shaping, and they will gain a strong sense of pride and empowerment from seeing what they make without fancy equipment.


Safety

The One Wire Sculpture Rule Written in Stone: Don't Put Your Eye Out!

Safety glasses are a good idea, but they're not 100% effective. A long, loose end of rogue wire can still whip around and through the ventilation holes in the side of the glasses. This is why I recommend students work with foot-long, pipe-cleaner lengths of wire.

So cut it small, about 12-inch lengths — or start with pipe cleaners. THIS IS A SAFETY MEASURE. I worry about the long length of those store-boughten "twisties" — an impulsive or excited kid whipping on of those around might accidentally put out someone's eye. Especially at the beginning, students working with wire should be supervised closely to ensure that they handle it safely and with respect. Any student that waves a wire about should be gently shown the correct way to control it.

Once students develop a reliable proximity sense and control of the wire, you may consider gradually increasing the lengths they work with. But be careful out there... even after decades working wire, I still have occasional scary scrapes and pokes with overly excessive lengths of wire.

Long-term wire sculptors sometimes experience carpal tunnel inflammations from repeatedly handling wire in the same motion. If one of your students gets totally immersed in wire sculpture, be sure they and their parents are aware of carpal tunnel issues. If your wire sculpture class lasts longer than an hour, have the kids take breaks to massage and stretch their hands, wiggle their fingers, or do other hand exercises to keep their carpals healthy.


Three Wire Exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to introduce students to the feel of wire, and to show them how many different and innovative things they can do with a very limited number of strands. Once they have mastered the three wire exercise, students may work with ever-increasing quantities of wire.

Before class begins, prepare quantities of 12-inch lengths of soft wire. Telephone wire is fun, and lends itself well. Working with different-color strands helps the student see what is going on, and where each wire leads within a sculpture. Copper and steel wire are good, too.

Distribute three strands of wire per student, and one or two wire cutters per table. Students may wish to swap different color wires back and forth.

Encourage students to focus on seeing how many different things they can do with just three wires. They can doodle around, making little cartoon figures. Or, if there's something they enjoy looking at, a flower or a bug, have them look at it very closely and see if they can make something like it out of the wire.

Often, you can promote creative innovation by asking the student to decide what their strongest interest is — people? animals? sports cars? Encourage them to really look at the objects they enjoy, and observe a few important aspects to try and get down in wire.

A tip for students who want to make animal sculptures: many wildlife artists subscribe to "Ranger Rick" magazine for its wealth of high-quality animal images.

If you have an assortment of different kinds of wire, encourage your students to try the three wire exercise with different types. Copper, including plastic coated telephone wire, is soft and pliable. This may make it easier to shape. It may also make it a little harder to hold together as a structure.

For a real kicker, reward the kids at the end of class with 3 more wires each, to carry in a pocket. I call these "fidget wires" and tell the kids that sooner or later, they can blow their parents' minds: just wait 'til the next time they're stuck and bored. In a long line, in a waiting room, on a long drive...as long as they have "fidget wires" to put together and take back apart, the time will fly — and their parents will be amazed at their ability to conquer boredom creatively!


The Creative Process: Wire Into Art

Some wire workshops suggest starting students off by making a drawing, then laying wire on it and pushing it around and shaping 'til it conforms to the image. I don't endorse this method of teaching. The forced conformity takes away from the potential for spontaneous learning, and the "pencil first" method interferes with the eye-brain-hand connection and stunts the creative process.

By the same token, your students will be more adventurous and innovative if you encourage them to work from scratch instead of copying another wire sculptor's creation. Students that go on to become professional artists will benefit from being taught early respect for other artists' copyrights. They are more likely to take pride in creating a personal style instead of appropriating somebody else's.

When I conduct a wire workshop, I distribute 3 of the 12" strands of phone wire per student, with the simple directive: "mess with it". I do NOT say, "this is the way to do it", this restricts them from the get-go. Left to their own innate inventiveness, a class of 25 students given total creative rein may invent 25 new and different methods of wire sculpture with just those three wires. The field is that wide open!

I tell the kids to loop, twist, wrap, or mangle their three wires around 'til they like it. After awhile, if they think they can do better, they take it apart and do something else with the same wire: recycling as they go! At the end of the session, the class has a diverse assortment of fantastic looking creations and a true sense of accomplishment.

As students "mess with the wire", their hands will make decisions for them. Their fingers may connect the wire as they loop, snag, twist, braid or kink the wires to hold them in place as they work on their "wire drawings". As they train themselves to draw with wire instead of ink, their hands will invent new ways to handle wire.

Students' first wire sculpture projects may be really flimsy, and they may think the works look clumsier than they want. You probably felt that way the first time you tried to draw with a pencil or crayon, too.

Elizabeth Berrien's first wire sculpture.My first wire sculpture. Can you tell it's a cat? Lucky my parents saved it for me, I would've thrown it out!

Lots of artists wish they'd saved those early efforts, so they could see how far they've come. Have your students set aside their early works so they have a little "research trail" of their evolution as wire sculptors.

Tell your students, "If you think you can do better, you have the potential to become an innovative wire sculptor too!"

Have older students pay attention to how different wires feel in their hands. Is there a texture, smooth or rough, that they really enjoy? For instance, steel will have a different feel than copper. Try thin wires, also thicker wires. Which feel better to hold and to shape?

Encourage your students to follow their intuition, spending more time with the wire they really like. Don't let them totally reject the wire they like less, though. Store it for the future. Tell them, instead of thinking, "that wire doesn't work for me", think, "that wire doesn't work for me... yet!" Once they have achieved mastery of their "personal wire", they'll discover that other kinds of wire are much easier to work with.

More advanced students can ponder the structural aspects of wire sculpture — how many different ways can they attach the wire to itself, and how strong or weak are the results? What happens when they combine two or more different thickness or types of wire? Can a kinked wire be straightened again?

Any time a student is just not satisfied with what they make, it's okay to start over. With practice, it'll come faster and smoother, their creations will get more like they intended. But they'll be surprised how much character even their startup squiggles have! Tell them to hang on to them, use them as minor ornaments around the house. Give some to family and friends as special gifts.


Bases for Wire Sculptures

Putting student wire sculptures on wooden bases seems to be some kind of fad — I think someone's K-12 wire workshop website suggests it. I question the need to complicate matters by mounting wire sculptures on wooden blocks. Adding a wood base can be interesting, but it also adds complications and hurdles to the students' spontaneity. Wood bases have to be sanded, finished, etc. An adult must drill a hole and affix the wire sculpture to the wood base. Wirework is much more powerfully rewarding when students can construct the entire project with their own two hands. The solid bulk of a wood base often interferes visually with the open airiness of the wire sculpture. I recommend skipping wood bases whenever possible.

Are bases absolutely essential? There's no written-in-stone that says so...unmounted wire projects can be ornaments, jewelry, free-standing or hanging wire sculpture, mobiles. Anything goes!

If a base is absolutely called for, have the student make one out of wire. A wire base looks much more in harmony, and is easier to manage for students who want to start working with wire at home.

For display purposes, sculptures without bases can be attached securely to pedestals by stapling.

©2005 Elizabeth Berrien. All rights reserved.


More with Elizabeth Berrien

Elizabeth BerrienElizabeth Berrien, one of the world's foremost contemporary wire sculptors, learned the process of innovation in 1968 from the late Kenneth G. Curran. In 2004 she founded the worldwide guild, Wire Sculpture International. She is a recipient of the prestigious Victor Jacoby Award, a $3,500 fellowship for innovation in art. Berrien teaches wire sculpture workshops to K-12 school children, college students and art educators throughout the US. Art educators around the world teach their students to study the works of Elizabeth Berrien alongside those of Alexander Calder. For more information visit her Web site at wirezoo.com


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