Milk Bottle Cows- John Kelly inspired ~ Year 5/6 art lesson

Melbourne artist John Kelly is well known for his many cow sculptures and paintings, but they are rather intriguing because they are a boxy shape and have an elongated neck and small head. It is not until you find out the back story for these strange bovines that they make sense.

His inspiration came from a story about how life size paper mache model cows were made during WWII and placed around airfields to disguise them as farms to Japanese aircraft! The interesting part is that several artists who were serving in the army were instructed to make the cows, including William Dobell who served as an official war artist. In 1943 he won the Archibald Prize with a stylised, exaggerated portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith, with an elongated neck and small head, which at the time was quite controversial.

So when John Kelly read about this wartime ruse, he decided to make artworks of what he named, “Dobell’s Cows” mimicking portraits Dobell had made with these long necks and small heads on his cows. He imagined how Dobell would have marked out lines to paint them as Holstein or Ayreshire cows with patched markings, maybe had them on wheels to move them around the field, stacked them up line blocks- quite a parody of events!

LESSON ACTIVITIES:

Students were shown the artwork, ‘The Incident’ by John Kelly, without any knowledge of the story behind it. I used the Visual Thinking Strategies by posing the questions:

What is going on in this picture?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What else can you find?

After students shared their thoughts, we looked at other artworks by Kelly that help build up the story. I used a Powerpoint (included with lesson plan below) with other works and a look at William Dobell’s portraits to understand how this influenced Kelly’s cows.

Use 2 Litre plastic milk bottles for the cow body.

We used corks for legs because I had a huge tub full of them, but you could just as easily secure rolled cardboard to the front and back.

Start with the legs, covering with strips of wet plaster cloth to join to the bottle, then cover the entire bottle with plaster smoothing as you go.

I sliced off edges of champagne corks to make the thin neck and glued and glued egg shaped poly balls to them. The top of the cork fitted nicely into the opening of the milk bottle with a strip of wet plaster bandage wound around to hold it in place.

When covering the head with plaster strips, ears can be shaped out of the wet plaster.

Horns can be added with the plaster or paper clay like Crayola Model Magic. Once the plaster is dry the cow is painted either black and white for a Holstein cow or reddish-tan for an Ayrshire cow.

Detailed lesson plan for John Kelly Cow models. Includes learning intention, success criteria, assessment /self evaluation rubric and Victorian curriculum standards. Also a PDF to discuss John Kelly’s cow artworks.
PDF to discuss John Kelly’s cow artworks.

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