How do you give materials new meaning?

Minimum Grade Level: High School
National Core Arts Standards:
VA:Cn10.1.6a Generate a collection of ideas reflecting current interests and concerns that could be investigated in artmaking.
VA:Cr1.2.Ia Shape an artistic investigation of an aspect of present day life using a contemporary practice of art or design.
VA:Cr2.1.8a Demonstrate willingness to experiment, innovate, and take risks to pursue ideas, forms, and meanings that emerge in the process of artmaking or designing.
VA:Cr3.1.5a Create artist statements using art vocabulary to describe personal choices in artmaking.

Thornton Dial, Sr., Crossing Waters, 2006-2011, found objects and paint on canvas on wood, 8 x 14 ft (High Museum of Art)

Thornton Dial, Sr., Crossing Waters, 2006–2011, found objects and paint on canvas on wood, 8 x 14 ft (High Museum of Art)

A central part of Thornton Dial’s art-making process was the use of found objects, or common, often discarded items he encountered in his daily activities. He combined these everyday materials in paintings, sculptures, and assemblages, infusing them with new life and meaning. The resulting artworks simultaneously reflect Dial’s lived experience and address challenging histories, questions, and issues. He saw power and freedom in this practice, explaining that:

When I start any piece of art I can pick up anything I want to pick up. When I get ready for that, I already got my idea for it. I start with whatever fits with my idea, things I will find anywhere…Everything you pick up going to do you some good. Don’t nothing need to be throwed away…That’s why we pick up these things. Negroes done learned how to pick up old things and make them brand-new. They had to learn them things to survive, and they done got wiser for doing, wiser by looking at the things and taking them into the mind. You call that “smart.”

(from artist bio at

In Crossing Waters, Dial arranged found items on a large canvas and covered it in paint to depict a scene of tumult at sea. Churning blue and purple waters contain fragments reminiscent of a shipwreck, suggested by bits of wire fencing, tin, wood, cloth, shoes, tools, and ceramics. The immediate allusion is to the the horrific Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade. However, Dial’s use of water as a subject reflects its dual symbolism within African-American history and culture as a means of both oppression and deliverance. 

In this activity, use found objects to create an artwork that offers a reflection on a topic from today’s society that is of personal importance to you. Before you begin, you might find it helpful to explore even more of Thornton Dial’s artworks. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s website features a wide selection of his work. 

For further inspiration: Explore the work of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, who also uses found objects to construct dynamic and powerful 3-dimensional artworks. Anatsui’s more recent sculptures, like Lines that Link Humanity from 2008, are made primarily of reshaped liquor bottle caps and labels, all tied together with copper wire to form a tapestry of shimmering colors and forms. These works both reference and transcend the social, political, and economic histories of West Africa as they engage the spaces and visitors of sites around the globe. 

1. Generate a list of current issues that impact your daily life.

Examples might include climate change, pollution, housing inequities, cultural or racial stereotyping. Come up with 2 or 3 things that you would like to explore more deeply through art-making. 

2. Look out for discarded materials.

With these topics in mind, spend a few days observing the items that go to the recycle or trash bin at school, home, or another space you visit frequently–this is important because the items should feel familiar to you because they are from your everyday experience. As you observe, start to collect items that you believe connect to and/or deepen your thinking about your topics of interest. Caution: only consider items that are safe to handle and are not perishable

At the end of the few days, or even a week, take stock of what materials you have and which topic they feel most connected to. If you only have a few items, that’s just fine. And, if the items you have collected prompt you to shift your thinking to a new topic, that’s fine too. Let the process unfold and be open to where it leads you. If time allows, share your ideas and found objects with others, inviting questions and responses that may help you refine your ideas further.

3. Take time to play.

Move your found objects around on a surface such as canvas, wood, or cardboard. As you play, turn the objects at different angles, consider different relationships among them, and decide how, together, they best speak to the topic you are investigating with your artwork. Also consider what colors you would add to them with paint and how you will affix them to your surface–glue, staples, tape, rope, or something else? You might want to make a few sketches or notes or, again, share your ideas with others to help you plan things out. As Thornton Dial said, “I see the piece in my mind before I start, but after you start making it you see more that need to go in it. It’s just like inventing something.”

4. Put it all together.

Once you feel comfortable with your plan, attach your materials to your chosen surface and cover the whole thing with paint.

5. Create an artist’s statement.

Describe your materials, ideas, and personal choices in making your artwork. Share your statement and your artwork with others in your class or mount a class exhibition for others in the school to see.