Papier-mache sculpture: bringing back the dinosaurs

Some call it three-dimensional art, some call it three-dimensional play. Whatever else it is, papier-mache sculpture is unquestionably one of the wettest and stickiest ways for anyone five or six or older to have a little artistic fun.

It's a good project for Saturday afternoons (you'll need several) and for involving a whole group of children at once.

To get ready, you'll need plenty of old clothes, a sizable work space, lots of old newspapers, scissors, masking tape, and a bucket in which to make a wheat-based paste out of wallpaper paste and water. Later, you'll also need a little sandpaper; a white primer (latex is recommended); and water-base paint, such as tempera, in any colors the children like.

And if you want your sculpture shiny and made to last without cracking, like Mexican papier-mache figures, you'll want to finish it off with one or two coats of shellac after it dries.

You can, of course, make anything you like out of papier-mache, but Devorah Samet and Joe Prieboy strongly recommend sculpturing dinosaurs. These young artists have a Chicago Council on Fine Arts grant to teach fourth-to-sixth-graders exactly how to do that in an after-school class twice a week at Wicker Park Elementary School on Chicago's North Side.

As they tell it, most children have a natural interest in dinosaurs just waiting to be tapped. ''I was a member of a dinosaur club in second grade,'' Mr. Prieboy recalls. He says most children pick up the complex names and characteristics of the prehistoric creatures surprisingly quickly.

Anyone visiting the class notices that right away. Children point with pride to their sculptures by name - and can tell you when the animals lived, what they ate, and how they survived.

The variety appears endless. Juan Martinez is putting a primer coat on his pteranodon, a large flying reptile with a bony crest on the back of its head, a pointed beak, and no teeth. ''It probably had a hard time moving around on land, '' he says. Across the table Yvette Gonzalez is trying to decide what color she will paint her dimetrodon, which has a large bony plate rising like a sail off its back. ''That's a fin that keeps him warm when he's cold,'' she explains.

Nearby, Tamu James finishes a primer coat on her allosaurus, a meat eater with sharp claws and teeth, which walked on two feet and was as much as 35 feet long. ''It wasn't the largest and the meanest, but it was right up there,'' concedes Mr. Prieboy. Tamu sets her animal down gingerly.

Next to her, Vamaris Soto paints green circles on her bright-blue brachiosaurus, the tallest, heaviest (about the weight of 20 elephants), and one of the slowest moving dinosaurs. She explains that it had nostrils on the top of its head so it could spend a lot of time under water - particularly when meat-eating dinosaurs were pursuing him. ''He was a plant eater; he was peaceful ,'' she explains.

Ms. Samet and Mr. Prieboy, who have worked on similar projects with children in San Francisco, say many children have a hard time realizing how long ago dinosaurs roamed the earth - from 65 to 225 million years ago. And many youngsters, they say, think there were people around at the time. But even the first cave men did not arrive until about 3 million years ago.

In their classes the two artists encourage children to cap the artistic experience by writing an essay about their particular sculpture. ''It gives them a sense of the environment of the time if they can write about the animal - what it did and who it hung around with,'' Mr. Prieboy explains.

Ms. Samet and Mr. Prieboy concede that this whole exercise requires and teaches patience (their class lasts six months). But they note that many children come to enjoy it to the point where they make other papier-mache sculptures on their own at home.

To start off a sculpture project, you'll need a good reference book from the neighborhood library. These artists recommend the ''Children's Encyclopedia of Prehistoric Life,'' published by Usborne Ltd., but they stress that lots of pictures are the most crucial ingredient.

Once each child has chosen a favorite, have him draw a rough sketch. He should pencil in circles for the head, neck, chest, stomach, feet, and legs - and draw around them to get the shape he wants. Don't forget to add a tail and such details as plates, horns, and rough skin.

Roll sheets of newspaper into three- or four-inch balls. ''Crumple it and shape it with your hands - don't fold it,'' Ms. Samet advises. Then seal the shape you want with masking tape. Connect the balls together to form the body with more masking tape.

For the back and tail, roll three or four large sheets of newspaper very tightly into a couple of rods and seal them together lengthwise with tape. Connect the rods to the back of the head, and run them over the other circles as a backbone and tail. Attach them with more tape.

Now roll a few more sheets, but more loosely, into rods for legs. The legs should be about twice as long as you want them so that half the length can be taped to the body. Ms. Samet stresses that the length must be the same for each leg, or the sculpture won't stand correctly.

Add more crumpled paper and tape around the dinosaur wherever you think more muscle or fat is needed. And add any other details - like horns (rolled strips of paper work well), eyes, and toes - checking again with the picture guide.

Next, strengthen the sculpture by dipping neat strips of newspaper in wheat paste and molding them smoothly over the animal's body. Children love to mix the paste (using four parts water to one part powder) with an egg beater, says Ms. Samet, who describes the ideal consistency as ''a little thinner than oatmeal.'' Once the strips are dipped, she recommends running them between two fingers to shake off the excess liquid.

''You don't want too much, or it dries hard and makes the animal lumpy,'' says Pia Johnson, who with Natilia Logan is working on a stegosaurus, surely one of the most awesome-looking dinosaurs that ever trod the earth. The girls are having a hard time making the sharp, bony plates along his back and tail stand up straight.

Three or four layers of wet, wheat-pasted strips - with ample time between for drying - will add considerably to the sculpture's strength. After sandpapering the result, a primer coat of white latex paint can be added to make the outside smoother, like skin. Once it dries, water-based tempera paint, preferably in bright colors for added fun, can be applied. A layer or two of shellac seals in the shine and hardness.

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