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Elizabeth Berrien's Wire Sculpture Tutorials
Elizabeth Berrien : Teaching Innovative Wire Sculpture to Kids

Teaching Innovative Wire Sculpture to Kids

By Elizabeth Berrien

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.

For many years I have taught the basics of Innovative Wire Sculpture grade school and college students, teachers and professors. In this lesson plan I will share what I have learned from Kenneth Curran so you can teach Innovative Wire Sculpture, too.

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

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", please respect the medium and start addressing it by its proper name, "wire sculpture".

To re-educate the neurons as to proper terminology, your students' first project can be to create the words WIRE SCULPTURE in wire. Assign each student to create one or more letter of the words WIRE SCULPTURE. Staple or tape the finished letters onto a backing to form the words. Post this noble first creation for the students to see as they work on other wire projects, and they're on their way!


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.


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.


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.

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