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Art Education Studio at Home

Kohl’s Art Generation Studio at Home: Create a Shadow Box

American artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) was famous for his imaginative, mixed-media shadow boxes. A shadow box is an enclosed box, with glass on the front, that contains artistic or personal objects. Cornell purchased trinkets from secondhand stores and cut out images from magazines to use as art supplies. He then arranged these objects to create dreamlike, mysterious, and whimsical scenes. Many of his shadow boxes had themes, like outer space or birds. Cornell spent a lot of time by himself; each shadow box offers a glimpse into his private world.

Here’s how you can create your own shadow box, using objects you find at home!

Joseph Cornell (American, 1903-1972). Celestial Navigation by Birds, ca. 1958. Mixed-media box construction

What you need:

  • Tissue box or any small box
  • Glue (liquid or glue stick)
  • Scissors
  • Colorful papers
  • Markers
  • Magazines or newspapers
  • Assorted objects

1. Collect your materials.
Joseph Cornell often went to thrift shops to find objects for his creations. To collect your own objects, search around your house. What objects are special to you? The theme of my shadow box is going to be “migrating birds,” so I am collecting different bird-related items. I am also collecting old magazines, wrapping paper, and newspapers; I these will use these be used to make a collage on the back of my shadow box.

2. Collage and color the background of your box
If you’re using a tissue box, you should start by cutting off the top to create an open space. With a pair of scissors, make a diagonal cut on all four corners, going from each inner corner to each outer corner. Then, fold back the edges and trim those off.

Once your box is ready, start building your background. Think about the scene you want to create. Is it a natural landscape? A picture from your imagination? I found some old maps and thought they would be the perfect background for my birds.

Choose a background from your assortment of papers. Then, cut out and glue your material (or materials) into your box. You can also color your background with markers. 

3. Keep layering with collage!
Search through your magazines and newspapers, and find images that catch your eye. Cut them out with scissors. Play with the arrangement of your pictures before you glue them down.

4. Arrange your objects.
Now that your background is complete, it’s time to place your collected objects into your shadow box. Will you arrange your objects according to height? Color? Size? I plan to continue moving and rearranging my objects, so I am not gluing them down.

5. Admire your work!
Every artist needs a title for their masterpiece. I call mine The Places Birds Go. Share your title and artwork with your family. What other imaginative scenes can you create? Show off your work on social media. Tag us, @MilwaukeeArt, and use the hashtag #MAMStudioAtHome.

Kohl’s Studio at Home activities are designed to be enjoyed with the whole family, regardless of age. Families can work together to learn new techniques and materials, and to explore creativity. As with all new things, provide your child the support and supervision that they need for their developmental level, practicing safe use of tools and materials. You know your kids best!

Liala Amin is the Kohl’s Color Wheels Team Coordinator. She develops art activities inspired by the Museum’s collection, and brings a pop-up studio to school and community festivals throughout the region. When she isn’t driving the giant, green van, she enjoys hanging out with her parakeets and painting.

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