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University of Wisconsin Eau Claire



Course level 

This prompt is suited for 3D Design, but I used it in a beginning sculpture course in spring 2020 for the first time transitioning from face-to-face to online teaching. Due to its research and narrative potential, the prompt may be modified to work in photography, installation, or non-static forms, as well as timed-based or interdisciplinary courses. It often produces a broad range of ideations and subject matter, depending on student interests.


Conversation points for instructors

I pose this story-telling problem to help students develop research and writing as important aspects of their art-making process.


Learning outcomes include:

  • Develop personal processes & creative strategies of investigation through direct research.

  • Build knowledge of materials through experimentation and investigation

  • Apply concepts, media, and processes to express an intended outcome.

  • Communicate theme, ideas, and studio processes. Express learned knowledge through written and digital documentation and verbal critique.


Originally inspired by Richard Holland when we were both graduate students at UW-Madison. The project has changed over the years and may be adapted to focus on societal or cultural shifts.



Project Prompt / Challenge

Recently you found yourself social distance walking in the woods to get some fresh air. In the process, you trip over something sticking out of the ground. When you bend down to pick it up, you realize you have discovered a mysterious artifact that has been hiding beneath the surface for a long time. You have no choice but to speculate about its existence. Using a combination of found objects, it is your task to create both this mysterious object and its history. Think of yourself as an anthropologist or archeologist who has just discovered an artifact never seen by people today.  The idea is to create an object and its narrative to convince the viewer of its believability.



1:  Research different cultures, the history of a place or location, the people, tools, and time periods, etc., and investigate the technologies of those periods. Investigate what tools people used to gather food, or how they coped with disease. What musical instruments did they use? What objects were part of rituals? How can you use this information to formulate your own inquiries? Visit a natural history, cultural, or science museum in person or online. Look at artifacts and how identification markers are used to inform the public.


2:  Find connections between history and modern-day material culture. Document your research in your sketchbook, noting inspirations, websites visited, books, and other resources you discover. You will need to cite these resources on the bottom of your descriptive marker (this will replace your artist statement). The artwork you produce must be grounded in this research by including factual components, even if you make up the rest of the story.

3:  Use already used, broken, discarded materials/objects. You are re-contextualizing the object(s) and altering their meaning (i.e. a colander is no longer a colander but a device for reproducing the sonar capabilities of bats by echolocation). Assume everything will be “ruined” in the course of creating this work, as you reassemble into something new. Don’t be afraid to “break” and “rebuild” your objects (mere “assemblage” without some additional construction shows limited curiosity). Consider all of your collected objects like puzzle pieces you must fit together in a visually aesthetic and coherent way.


4.  After you have conducted your research, construct and assemble your artifact. Finish by creating a descriptive marker (typed) that explains the object(s), its function and importance, time period, etc.


Used, broken, discarded materials and objects.


I allow about two weeks with staggered due dates for research and ideation, process discussion, and then critique discussion. Students are prompted to ask each other questions to think about a broader context for their research. For online, the timeline may be different (I allowed 3 weeks).


Student Examples:



When I present the project, I narrate it with the ideas from professional artists and A LOT of student examples (narrating parts of their narratives). I show interesting Steam Punk examples and provide links to medical quackery websites and objects. I show artwork by Marcel Duchamp, Jud Turner, Willie Cole, and Matthais Pliessnig. Artists who work with reliquaries or make site-specific work could also be included..

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