Ceramic First Nations Totems


6th grade studies Canada as part of their Social Studies curriculum, so in art we learn about the art & culture of the First Nations people of British Columbia–specifically their totem poles. We start out with this Prezi and some brainstorming about the symbolism we assign to certain animals, and then students work on sketches for their final pieces, which are created in the form of an animal to represent themselves or someone they know.


We use the slab-building method to create the initial forms. Students roll and cut a slab to fit a cylindrical form (we use a short length of PVC pipe, wrapped in a plastic bag). Then they attach a circular base, and begin working on their other attachments. We talk about how the First Nations people create totems using a subtractive method to alter the cylindrical form of the cedar trunk, while we’re using an additive method to alter the cylindrical clay form.


To help students get an idea of the distinctive totem style, I have lots of photographs I scatter on the tables, as well as a little “mix & match & invent your own” sheet of drawings that shows some common shapes & features.



After drying & being bisque-fired, we paint these with tempera in traditional totem colors, and they’re ready for display.