Coil a Portrait

Coil a Portrait lesson plan

Compare modern culture with African tribal cultures by researching how individual and group identity are expressed through hair arrangements and other appearance norms.

  • 1.

    Investigate the practice of hair sculpture in African tribal cultures. What other alterations of physical appearance have been practiced by native cultures? Discuss how these practices compare to the role of hair styles and other purposeful appearance alterations in your own culture.

  • 2.

    Research contemporary artist Terry Niedzialak who creates hair montages that make statements about social conflicts (see Fiberarts, Jan/Feb 1991). Study his fiber sculpture style for ideas to use when making your own self portrait sculpture.

  • 3.

    In the center of a piece of oak tag or poster board, use Crayola® Washable Markers to sketch a simple self-portrait. Use a mirror if it helps.

  • 4.

    Roll coils of Crayola Model Magic, either on a flat surface or between the hands. Press some coils flat. Roll up others in cinnamon-roll fashion.

  • 5.

    Place the coils on the sketch to create facial features and hair. With Crayola School Glue, attach the Model Magic pieces to the paper and each other. Cut the rest of the paper away with Crayola Scissors. Let the sculpture dry.

  • 6.

    Color the portrait using Crayola Watercolors or Tempera Paint and Brushes. Or use Crayola Washable Markers and brush water over the surface. Let the sculpture dry again.

  • 7.

    Use Crayola School Glue to embellish the face with feathers, dried flowers, or other decorative materials. Glue a paper clip to the back for a hanger.


  • Students research African tribal cultures that expressed their identity and group status through hair sculpture.
  • Students compare and contrast their own cultures with those researched.
  • Students make portraits of themselves to express their individuality and group relationships.


  • Teamwork can really pay off on projects like this. Pairs of students can create each other's coiled portraits and get to know each other in the process. They might also write poems to describe their new friends.
  • Learn more about hairstyles and their significance. For example, cornrows represent "courage, honor, wisdom, and strength" according to Frances Ann Day in Multicultural Voices in Contemporary Literature: A Resource for Teachers.
  • Find portraits and sculpture of people in various cultures and eras. Have children compare different types of hairstyles. How do they think these styles were created without curling irons and styling gel?
  • Younger children and special needs students may benefit from short practice sessions experimenting with sculpting and painting techniques before participating in this activity.
  • Teachers may wish to preview books and photographs to select the most appropriate treatment of subjects for students.