Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Making Totem Poles

Last term I have been busy at a local primary school helping years 3 & 4 (7 - 9 year olds) create totem poles from cardboard tubes.

We began by looking at the symbolism and meanings of totem poles carved by the native American peoples of north-west Canada such as the Tlinglit. We read about the different magical powers each animal has and we began by drawing thunderbirds, owls, beavers, frogs, eagles and wolves. When each child had decided on their design we then drew our totems to fill an A4 size piece of paper. This design would become the template that would be painted onto the poles.

But first we had to make our flimsy cardboard tubes more solid and this meant the messy task of slapping papier mache over the tubes using newspaper and paste. It took three layers of mache to bulk up the tubes and attach them to the bases. The bases are two wooden boards. Here you can see Emily's fierce owl with bulging eyes.

Some of the children had designed their totems with wings which needed to be attached to the pole. At first we tried sticking them with papier mache but the cardboard shapes became really soggy and would slide down the pole. Also, the poles wouldn't stay fixed to the boards with mache alone. This was very frustrating! Then I found a box of mod roc (plaster bandage) and we used strips of this to hold the cardboard shapes in place. We also wrapped it around the bottom of the tubes to fix them to the boards. Even messier!
Above - Charlotte's savage lion.

This Thunderbird by Rose was the most successful of the winged totems. By the time we made this we realised that the most effective way to make solid wings was to cut an aperture in the tube and slot the cardboard shapes into the holes then secure them with papier mache.

Next the totems were given an undercoat of cream emulsion paint (we mixed the colour ourselves using white emulsion and adding a tablespoon of red, yellow and blue acrylic paint). This was to cover all the newsprint and provide a base colour for the painting. Here you can see Harriet's rabbit and the base pattern designed and painted by Jessica. You can also see how much mod-roc is holding the base together!

The totems were painted with acrylic paint in bright colours. This was fun but also chaotic because everyone wanted to paint at once so I decide that everyone had to work in pairs - one as painter and one as assistant. This meant that the assistant would hold the pole steady whilst the painter did their "thing". The following week they swapped places. Fiona was a bit too enthusiastic painting her butterfly and was leaning heavily on the pole - so this pole lists to one side but, hey - that's art!

Once all the painting was finished the poles needed two coats of protective varnish. We used an acrylic varnish which washed out of the brushes with water and didn't give off fumes. But the poles were still a bit unsteady so we balled up gobs of wet mod-roc and threw them down the tubes. Once they dried the poles were more stable (but they will never survive a high wind). Here is Sarah's dragon.

So we now have four totem poles completed although what we are going to do with them I am not sure. I know I'm not supposed to have favourites but Jack's toucan is brilliant. OK, so he has taken some artistic licence by changing his thunderbird into a toucan (how many toucans live in north-west Canada?) but he produced a wonderful totem after struggling to draw the original toucan.

And why do we have 2 totem poles on bases and two totem poles without? Well I had this idea that we would have two 8 foot poles by joining the tubes together but this meant that no-one would be able to paint the top of the poles as they couldn't reach. The children did suggest that they lower themselves from the ceiling on ropes like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible but even I couldn't get that to work! So now we have four 4 foot totem poles, two free standing and two wobbly ones.

I can't begin to tell you how much fun it was to work with a team of enthusiastic and lively children to make these totems. Some of our planning and problem-solving was hilarious, team work was excellent and their imagnations are terrific. To see more totems by Years 3 & 4 just click on this link.


  1. Those are fantastic, the kids did a really good job of making the totems.

  2. What amazing totems!
    Well done to all the artists involved :-)

  3. They're fantastic - your years 3&4 should feel very proud of themselves and rightly so!

  4. Brilliant! I love the animals on the totem poles.Very colourful,well painted and full of fun.
    Good work,well done!

  5. Wow! Those are some talented youngsters you're working with at the moment, I just LOVE the colour choices.
    I'm inspired to have a go myself now after seeing how beautifully these turned out and I think I'll use the same animals too!

  6. I love them....can i have them all for my garden please!! xx


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