To some, Alexander Calder's aerial sculptures appear more like an oversized version of the mobiles over a child's crib. To those in the art world, they expressed a synthesis of abstract three-dimensional forms with harmony and structural balance at the heart of his designs. But to fifth-graders at Glebe Elementary School, they are a lesson.
"He didn't like things to be flat and not moving," said Sean Fredericks, pointing to one of the mobiles his classmates made as part of an algebra lesson examining Calder's work. "This was his own kind of art."
In an education lesson supported by the National Gallery, Glebe students are using Calder's work to study the relationship between art and mathematics. The lesson is hands-on, according to art teacher Lynn Westerman, and incorporates the lessons of art class with those of math.
"Let's say your total value is 120," said student Will McAllister. "If you want to balance the mobile with the fulcrum in the center, you can put 60 units on each side. But if your fulcrum is off to one side, you have to distribute the weight in a different way."
Since beginning the unit, Westerman said, students have made several trips to the National Gallery to sketch Calder's mobiles and to learn more about him. The next step was to give them wires and construction paper and get the students to make one themselves.
"At Glebe, we feel that kind of lesson helps kids make connections that they might not otherwise make," said Westerman. "They end up doing a much more in-depth investigation into the art and the math that comes with it."
In Algebra classes, students used the mobiles to study distribution and the mathematical principles that keep Calder's mobiles in that slow, graceful spin rather than crashing to the floor.
"The fulcrums usually ended up in the middle," said Olga Sangel. "That's because you can just distribute the values evenly. The mobiles are all about balance."
CALDER BEGAN his career not as an artist, but as an engineer, working with hydraulics and automobiles according to National Gallery biography. The son of a painting father and a sculpting mother, art played a significant role in his young life but it was not until age 25 that Calder devoted himself to it. Among his first exhibited works was the Cirque Calder, a mechanical circus fashioned from wires complete with a swinging trapeze artist powered by the momentum of the piece's moving parts. In the 1930s, Calder was drawn to more abstract designs through his friendship with cubist Piet Mondrian. Calder continued to incorporate movement into his work until he soon found himself constructing the massive mobiles for which he is best known, work propelled by the force of gravity.
"To most people who look at a mobile, it's no more than a series of flat objects that move," the artist once said. "To a few, though, it may be poetry."
To learn more about the artist, Glebe students also studied his early artworks. McAllister said that as a painter, Calder had a particular interest in creating images from one single line curved and spiraled many times into a complete picture. Studying his color preferences, McAllister said, also reveals something about his personality.
"He didn't like to use green very much," said McAllister. "That's because when he was young, he decided that there was already so much green in the world. When he got older, he decided he wanted to move away from that."
Connecting the lessons of the school day is an approach Glebe employs often to get its students engaged in what they are studying. Westerman said fourth-graders this year have made model wigwams and drawn artifacts from Virginia's historical past.