Adventures in Art – Alexander Calder

YAY!  It’s time for another installment of our Adventures in Art series!

Last week we finished our Alexander Calder unit and what a frolicsome time we had!  I have to admit, I didn’t know much anything about Alexander “Sandy” Calder until I first heard the song about him on Hope Harris’ CD.  Her CD entitled Picasso, That’s Who! and so can you! has been the spring board from which our entire Adventures in Art series has sprung.

When I started prepping for our Calder unit I had no idea how much fun was in store for us.  He was such a dynamic character and his numerous styles of art inspired my girls in numerous creative ways.  Calder is perhaps most famously known for his mobiles, but also created stabiles, wire sculptures, a complete miniature wire circus, paintings, sketches . . . He was just one cool dude.  {Also, being the astronomy buffs that we are} I was pleased to hear how much astronomy and the contemplation of the universe manifested itself through his art:

One morning off the coast of Guatemala, he recalled an event that was a defining moment in his artistic life, “I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side. I saw the moon looking like a silver dollar on the other. It left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system.”  He told an art critic, “The basis of everything for me is the … powerful, lasting image of the sunrise and the moon seen on that boat.”  Albert Einstein once spent 40 minutes watching the entire cycle of  Calder’s motorized mobile called A Universe at the Museum of Modern Art, and reportedly said he wished he had thought of it himself.

Come join the fun and explore the many sides of Alexander Calder!

First off, here are the things you might find useful:

  • A copy of Picasso, That’s Who!  (Pick up the CD at Hope Harris’ official website or grab the MP3 from Amazon here.)  We start off EACH and EVERY artist-appreciation lesson with lots of singing and dancing!
  • Art reference book (I picked up an old edition Gardiner’s Art book at Goodwill but any collection will do.)
  • Picture books from your local library (I listed our selections below)
  • Standard art supplies (examples shown below)

Alexander “Sandy” Calder

“My fan mail is enormous. Everyone is under six.”

 “The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof. For that is a rather large model to work from.”


Picture Books


Internet Sites  

National Portrait Gallery – Calder was also a prolific portraitist and typically worked with the unorthodox medium of wire.  

National Gallery of Art – Take a virtual tour of Alexander Calder: 1898 – 1976.  This exhibition was on view at the National Gallery of Art from March 29 – July 12, 1998.

You Tube Video

This 5 minute video shows Calder performing his miniature “Circus”.

Art Activities

1.  Free-For-All Art

After seeing how versatile Calder was in utilizing everyday materials in his artwork, I pulled out a large assortment of art supplies, fabric samples, paint chip binders, and other random materials I had laying around the house and decided to let the girls have at it.  I turned on our speakers, blared our Picasso That’s Who CD, handed the girls some glue and scotch tape and literally just said, “here ya go; have fun” and walked away.


 Then I stood back and let the magic happen.

There was no time limit and no instructions.  This activity was a huge hit with the girls and served as a great way to finally get me to pull down some of those art materials that were just collecting dust on shelves.

2.  Wire Sculptures à la Sandy Calder

After seeing some of the amazing detail Calder was able to bend into wire, the girls and I decided to give it a try for ourselves.

I picked up some hobby pliers and some bendable wire and the girls took turns looking over our Essential Alexander Calder book to gain inspiration.  Mira put bookmarks in the pages of her personal favorites.

I cut a few long strips of wire and the girls set to work bending it by hand.  Stella didn’t quite grasp what we were attempting to do so I worked with her to make this cute little snake.  She wanted a pig.  It just wasn’t happening.  A snake was about all I could manage.

Mira, on the other hand, chose to attempt to recreate one of Calder’s famous fish mobiles.  She affectionately dubbed this one, Piscis.

3.  Pencil Sketching

In the 1920’s Alexander Calder worked as a freelance illustrator and spent a couple of weeks sketching drawings for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Calder became fascinated with the circus, a theme that would reappear in his later work.

Living in Florida, I had the perfect opportunity to combine our final Calder-inspired art activity with a field trip: we planned a special day to visit the Ringling Museum of Art.  In addition to a phenomenal art museum, they also have a Circus Museum.  The cornerstone of the Circus Museum is the world’s largest miniature circus.  The model is a replica of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919 – 1938 and would therefore be similar to what Calder himself would have witnessed and sketched.  (If a circus {miniature or otherwise} isn’t available have your kids pick a fun scene or destination of their choosing to sketch.) 

The entire miniature circus model covers the circus from all stages of its operation- from the circus train coming into town, to the performers mess tents and rehearsals areas, to the crowds of people heading to the Big Top on opening night, and finally inside the tent itself with all its spectacular sights and marvels.

There was so much to see that we almost forgot our original mission- to sketch.  The girls looked for “sketching-spots” that appealed to them . . . 

. . . and finally settled upon the actual scene of the circus being performed.

It was a quiet day at the museum so my girls really had the place to themselves to gaze and sketch.

Stella and her Ballerina Trapeze Artist sketch:

Some of Mira’s scenes from the circus:



I have to admit, learning about Alexander Calder has been one of my favorite artist studies yet.  But then again, I think I say that every time I post about a new Adventure in Art subject.  Funny thing about artist appreciation activities– it really does makes you appreciate them!

Stay tuned- next up is Georgia O’ Keeffe!

*Check out the rest of our “Adventures in Art” lesson plans here.

**For another fun post on Alexander Calder and ideas for an activity on mobiles, check out my friend Julie’s blog over at Adventures of Bear.

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About Kristen

Home schooling classically with a dash of whatever strikes our fancy.
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9 Responses to Adventures in Art – Alexander Calder

  1. Pingback: Adventures in Art – Grandma Moses |

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  3. Mud Hut Mama says:

    I love reading about your adventures in art and seeing what your girls create. I’d like to do something similar. What age do you think the CD and activities are best suited for?

    • Kristen says:

      You can really tailor the activities to the interest level and attention-span of your kids. The songs themselves on the CD are extremely catchy and fun enough that even my 2 year old sings along to parts of them! This CD is definitely on my list of Must-Haves!

  4. The Monko says:

    Great choice of artist. I was lucky enough once to visit an art gallery in Barcelona that had some giant Calder mobiles. They were huge and metal but the tiniest breath could make them move because they were so perfectly balanced. Quite incredible

  5. I’m so glad I saw this post. I’d never heard of Calder. Checking out his books right now – I want to get bendable wire too!

  6. I liked the inclusion of your circus trip and sketches. It really acknowledged his whole body of work. I just got your post today about resuming this series and coincidentally did an Alexander Calder post myself.

  7. Art shed says:

    I like your post. Your experience with Alexander Clader is great. I appreciate the inspiration and interest of girl to learn about art. Thanks to you for sharing your great experience with us.

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