About This Lesson Plan



Lesson 3: Mary Edmonia Lewis

Students will learn the basics of sculpture and create a bust of a prominent civil rights leader.

To learn the basics of sculpture: use the additive process and create an image (small statue or bust) of a prominent leader of the civil rights movement. Students will also research the life and accomplishments of Mary Edmonia Lewis.

Self-hardening clay, terra-cotta clay, or if kiln is available white or red stoneware fired to bisque (possible to glaze to represent marble or bronze), sketching materials

Other resources include:

1. Display Mary Edmonia Lewis's work. Have students discuss the various leaders and subjects of her work. Why were they chosen, what did they do? What legacy did they leave that deserved immortality in sculpture?

2. Provide students with background information on Mary Edmonia Lewis.

Mary Edmonia Lewis was born around July 4, 1844, near Albany New York. Lewis changed her name from Wild Fire (her Chippewa given name) and was sometimes known as M. Edmonia Lewis or Mary E. Lewis. Her background was colorful in that she was accused of murder and theft but acquitted of all charges. These allegations represent the time period she lived in, where African-Americans and Native Americans were treated with great bias. Edmonia was treated poorly due to both racial biases, her mother being African-American and Chippewa and her father being African-American. Edmonia Lewis became the first internationally recognized African-American woman sculptor. An American hero today, she is best known for her work in representing those who worked for civil freedom and emancipation. Lewis's most famous work, Forever Free, was completed in 1867. She worked in alabaster, bronze, and marble. Having some tutelage under a portrait sculptor, Edmonia honed her skills creating images of major members of various groups supporting freedom. Some of her subjects were: Abraham Lincoln, noted abolitionist John Brown, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Sergeant William H. Carney, and Horace Mann. She found great support and recognition in Rome. Her studio there became an important stop for those pursuing "the Grand Tour." Recently discovered in a scrap heap her work "Death of Cleopatra" amazed those who attended the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. It now resides in the Smithsonian Institution. Mary Edmonia Lewis immortalized heroes from both Native American history (figures from The Song of Hiawatha) as well as prominent personalities in the abolition and freedom movements of the 1860s and 1870s.

It is stated on www.edmonialewis.com: "She loved America, but could not live in a society that cast her unfairly. Slighted by a few Americans even in Rome, she plotted her victorious return to the United States.... [She] became the first African-American artist to link her race and name with artistic achievement. She shocked and mortified those who claimed African-Americans lacked the capacity for intelligence and fine art by standing next to her works and explaining them for days on end.... [She returned to Europe to retire and] eventually abandoned the society—friends as well as enemies—that sought to keep her down."

1. Explain that students will be researching sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis. After completing their research they will create a work based on one of the figures that she created. Students will choose a piece to emulate in either air-dry clay (terra-cotta) or stoneware, glazing it to represent alabaster, bronze, or marble.

2. Review basic additive methods for sculpture, proportion, and modeling techniques. Have students work from photographs when building their project. If in the area, visit a museum that has Lewis's work for firsthand viewing.

It will be helpful for students to sketch in detail the figure that they choose from several angles, noting how chin, nose, and hair flow from one view to another. Allow for several classes to build up the bust or small figure.

3. Display the work. Invite students to present their research to other classes with their figures of Edmonia's work next to them, much as she herself worked.

Alternative Projects and Extended Lessons
Students may need to research prominent current leaders or past leaders independently or in conjunction with another class (history, language arts, civics).
  • Write essays with detailed descriptions of work.
  • Create a time line of Edmonia's life for the school: www.edmonialewis.com/
  • Have a day dedicated to Edmonia and create a PowerPoint presentation of her work for the school.
Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.