Helen Shirk Silhouette Necklace

helen shirk pinable

Helen Shirk is a San Diego artist and Professor of Art known for her metalwork and jewelry. I recently had the pleasure of viewing necklaces from Shirk’s Traces series on exhibit at San Diego’s Mingei International Museum. Even better – I got to participate in a Shirk-inspired paper jewelry activity taught by the Museum’s Education Department. The art project is so much fun – I just have to share their lesson!


'Crimson Glory' necklace by Helen Shirk, 2011. Steel, oxidized silver and china paint.

‘Crimson Glory’ necklace by Helen Shirk, 2011. Steel, oxidized silver and china paint.

We had two options for our silhouette necklace project: 1) a quick, 30-minute project using paper punches or 2) an hour-long project using real traced leaves. Both options focus on organic shapes and repetition.

Materials for both projects

  • black construction paper
  • card stock
  • glue sticks
  • yarn
  • scissors
  • tape

Project 1: 30-minute Punched Paper Silhouette Necklace

Additional material – paper punches in organic shapes (like these leaf , branchbutterfly, and dove  punches).

We punched paper shapes from black and colored papers, then glued them to a background and added yarn to form a necklace. Click here and here for the lesson plan, written by the excellent Education Department of the Mingei International Museum.

Shirk inspired necklace made with craft punches and card stock.

Shirk-inspired necklace made with craft punches and card stock. Teacher example.

Here is my Shirk inspired design!

Here is my Shirk inspired design!


Project 2: Traced Silhouette Necklace

Additional material: natural materials such as leaves, twigs and flowers.

Students make tracings of each onto construction paper, then cut out and arrange into a necklace.  Click here for the Mingei’s curriculum guide including this project.

Hand cut paper necklace inspired by Helen Shirk's jewelry.

Shirk-inspired paper necklace made by tracing leaves onto black and white paper.  Teacher example.

Helen Shirk’s Trace necklaces are on display at the Mingei Museum through January 5, 2014 as part of the Allied Craftsmen Today exhibit. For more examples of Helen Shirk’s jewelry, click here.

I wrote about the Mingei’s Chihuly chandelier – click here to see their fabulous 30-Minute Chihuly Chandelier project.

Special Notice for San Diego Teachers and Parents:

  • Teachers: Do you want to take your class to the Mingei Museum? The Mingei provides free admission for all K-12th grade tours as long as they’re scheduled in advance.
  • Parents: The Mingei is free to San Diego county residents and military the third Tuesday of the month. Monthly Family Sundays offer admission and fun activities for just $5/family. Go to www.mingei.org for more details.


40-Minute Poinsettia Tear Art Collage

40-minute poinsettia tear art collage

Do you want to create a poinsettia art project with little prep or clean up, in less than one hour? Try this fun tear art collage project.


  • colored construction paper, 9″x12″, one per student
  • red paper,  6″x9″, one per student
  • green paper, 6″x9″, one per student
  • yellow paper, 6″x9″, one per table
  • glue sticks

If possible, get some live poinsettias. I borrowed some from my colleagues and returned them at the end of the day.


We started off with a few poinsettia facts: the red ‘flower’ is called a bract. The bract is made of red leaves, NOT petals. Poinsettias are native to Mexico, where they are known as Noche Buena (‘Christmas Eve’).

Next students looked carefully at the poinsettias. We noticed the shape of the leaves, and had a quick review of organic vs. geometric shapes. We also noticed the red leaves were centered around a cluster of yellow dots. The red bract overlapped the green leaves. I pointed out that green and red are complementary colors.

Students observe poinsettias and create a collage using red and green paper.  Allow one 40-minute class.

Students observe poinsettias and create a collage using red and green paper. Allow one 40-minute class.

Creating the collage:

I modeled tearing. Students created odd numbers of red and green leaves, arranged them, then glued them to the 9″x12″ construction paper using a glue stick. We found out it was easier to glue the green leaves first. Students could place the red leaves over or in-between the green leaves. As a final touch, students could tear a few dots of yellow paper and glue them to the center of their paper poinsettias.

Second grade results:

Poinsettia tear art gallery - 2nd grade

Because we had live poinsettias on the tables, I encouraged students to hold up their torn shapes to the real leaves for comparison. They really enjoyed observing real plants, much more than working from a picture or from my example.

If you look carefully at our collages, you will see a white torn edge on the red and green papers. We used Fadeless Art Paper– it is colored on one side and white on the other.

I would love to use this technique to create a Van Gogh-inspired vase of sunflowers!


Do you have a favorite tear art project?

Notan for Fifth and Sixth Grades

notan for 5th and 6th gradesOur 5th and 6th grade students did a quick 40-minute cut paper notan collage project. Our inspiration came from these beautiful notan artworks at the MiniMatisse blog. If you are unfamiliar with notan, it is a Japanese design concept of dark and light. Notan cut paper projects are great for teaching a lot of concepts including contrast, positive and negative space, symmetry, and geometric vs. organic shapes.

This was the very first time I taught notan. I found two really good resources that gave me confidence: 1) a great video that shows the notan process and 2) a great illustration showing single and double cuts.

Each student started) with a 6″ square of red construction paper and a white format (background) paper . The minimum assignment was to make four single cuts – one cut from each of the square’s sides. Double cuts were optional (about half the students tried them). Cut pieces could be geometric (hearts were popular) and/or organic shapes.

Our students really liked this project. Some made Valentines and wanted to take them home immediately. I think they turned out great. I also think that their second attempts will be even better. Definitely a project to repeat!

Fifth and Sixth Grade Results:

more notan

notan valentines

notan names

The next two designs contain cut pieces that were rotated incorrectly. But you know what? I consider the artworks successful. They are beautiful designs, even if they don’t fully fulfill the assignment. They still illustrate the concept of positive and negative space although they are in places asymmetric.

not notan

Although we did these red paper notans in honor of Valentine’s Day, they will look great displayed as a group any time of year.

I would LOVE to find an iPad app or interactive website that illustrates notan. If anyone knows of one, please leave a comment!!


Have you even tried notan with your students?

Do you have any tips to share?


First Grade Shape Monsters

Organic shape monsterFirst graders created fabulous organic shape monsters. The lesson comes straight from this post on the We Heart Art blog. We began by reading Jeremy Draws a Monster by Peter McCarty. Then we looked at the student examples of monsters on the We Heart Art blog post.

We had a discussion of geometric shapes vs. organic shapes. Then I passed out a knotted loop of yarn to each student and they had fun stretching it and re-stretching it into different organic shapes. Finally, they placed the yarn on white paper and traced inside the loop, creating the body of the shape monster.

Students added all sorts of fun details. Some students preferred scary monsters, some preferred friendly monsters. To finish the project, the students cut out their monsters and glued them to colored construction paper.

In all, this project is PERFECT for first graders. I will definitely repeat next year!


IMG_0676 IMG_0677 IMG_0678 IMG_0679

Warm and Cool Color Fall Leaves

It’s fall – time for a fall leaf project! This lesson takes just two 40-minute sessions and covers:

  • warm and cool colors
  • stenciling
  • organic shapes
  • positive and negative space
  • symmetry


  • cardstock, cut into rectangles
  • pencils and erasers
  • scissors
  • white construction paper
  • oil pastels in warm colors (red, orange, yellow) (note: compensated affiliate link)
  • liquid watercolors in cool colors (purple, blue, green)
  • kosher salt (optional)

Leaf silhouettes


Session 1:

We looked at the silhouettes of fall leaves. We talked about the variety of leaf shapes. We discussed the difference between the organic leaf shapes and geometric shapes.

Next we created our stencils: students folded their cardstock, and drew a simple 1/2 leaf on the fold (note: don’t bother with a stem in your stencil design).

About 90% of second graders were able to design and cut a simple leaf stencil independently on their first attempt. As an alternative, you could cut stencils for your students.

Once we created the stencils we noticed they were symmetric. We also defined the leaf-shaped hole as the negative space and the leaf piece as the positive space.

Students stenciled multiple leaves . Some swapped stencils with their friends. After stenciling, they added a stem line to each leaf.

Paint leaves with cool color watercolors.

Session 2:

Students painted the leaves with liquid watercolors. They loved to see the oil pastel resist the paint. After painting, they had the option of sprinkling kosher salt on their wet art before placing their art on the drying rack.

Second grade results

Fall leaves with salt added.

Fall leaves with salt added.

The project was extremely successful. The students really enjoyed the process, and reviewed a lot of art concepts.

This lesson was inspired by  this post on Kids Art Market and this post on Use Your Colored Pencils.

Do you have a favorite fall leaves project?

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