Wolfgang Laib, Fourth Graders, and the Openness of the Artistic Process | David Rufo

A fourth grade girl set out an array of colored pencils, copy paper, and glue sticks on a table. I watched as she took a glue stick and, with it, formed a tight circle on a sheet of white paper. She then sharpened a colored pencil, flipped off the top to the sharpener, and proceeded to carefully empty the pencil shavings onto the glue. After making small adjustments by tapping and pushing a few shavings into place, she lifted the paper and lightly blew on the circle of shavings, allowing the loose pieces to fall to the floor. What remained on the page was a vibrant orb of color.


Later that day, I noticed two boys carefully wrapping strands of string around scissor blades and snipping these stands over and over so that a small pile of quarter-inch string sections began to emerge. They used the tips of their scissors to create even smaller sections. Finally, one of the boys held a fist full of string segments in his left hand. As he gradually sifted the fragments through his fingers, both boys used their scissors as tandem cutting sieves to create a delicate pile of snowy white fluff.


Children often use methodical and deliberate processes to create uncommon works of art from everyday materials. Similarly, the contemporary artist Wolfgang Laib uses natural elements such as pollen, wax, milk, and rice to create unconventional works. Laib has been described as an artist who “defies classification and denies dependence on any aesthetic precedent” [1]. Laib is unconcerned with contemporary Western art practices. In fact, he has not received any formal art training; he studied medicine before becoming an artist. In an interview, Laib related how he felt constrained by the scientific methodologies of the medical field, while he found “the openness in art to be far superior” [2]. Laib is drawn to the unexpected manifestations and serendipitous discoveries provided by the arts rather than the definitive and finite answers sought by scientific systems.


Watching my students work on creative artifacts such as the pencil shaving orbs and the string pile gave me a greater awareness of how the artistic process necessitates individualistic perspectives and applications. Art demands alternative and personalized ways of perceiving, comprehending, and doing. My students had occasions to engage in these types of activities because the environment was conducive to discovery-based and exploratory learning opportunities. Although the students were part of a larger classroom experience, they were given autonomy within the learning process. Students were allowed a certain amount of mobility within the classroom space and the flexibility to use their time as they saw fit.

Art is not created from standardization or schedules imposed from external forces, rather the artist determines the appropriate methodology and process. For example, it takes Laib a full summer to collect one small jar of dandelion pollen [3]. Yet it is this element of time that helps imbue Laib’s work with meditative and therapeutic qualities [4].

Children also need the freedom and agency to experiment with alternative materials and methods and time to discover the openness of the creative process of which Laib spoke. In this way, they can create art that is reflective yet immediate, simple and also profound.

[1] Ottmann, K. (2000). Wolfgang Laib: A retrospective. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hantje Cantz.
[2] Lodermeyer, P. (2008). Time-space-existence: A conversation with Wolfgang Laib. Sculpture, 27(2), 24-29.
[3] Ottmann, K. (1988). Wolfgang Laib. Journal of Contemporary Art, 1(1), 90-96.
[4] Barilan, M.Y. (2004). Medicine through the artist’s eyes: Before, during, and after the Holocaust. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 47(1), 110-134

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