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Unlock Imagination: Calder Fish Mobile Lesson – A Vibrant Dive into Kinetic Art & Modernism

This Calder fish mobile lesson has become a bit of a staple around here as there’s more to it than meets the eye. While we aren’t crafting a “true” mobile with every piece dancing around, this project is a great first step into some other big ideas.
Ever heard of kinetic art? This project gives kids a taste of it, providing a great opportunity to bridge the gap between art and science. It can also work as an introduction point to stories like the “Rainbow Fish” for those language arts moments. And if we’re talking big picture – it’s a fascinating sneak peek into how art has changed over time, touching on Modernism’s cool blend of art and tech. So, each time we dive into this Calder fish mobile lesson, we’re opening doors to loads of learning adventures.

Unleashing Creativity: Calder Fish Mobile Lesson

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Curriculum Connections:

Art History, Visual Art, Modern Art Movements, Kinetic Sculpture


Alexander Calder was not just any artist; he was an innovator, someone who always thought outside the box. Born in a family of artists in 1898 in Pennsylvania, art was in his blood. 

However, before embracing art, Calder pursued mechanical engineering; it was precisely this combination of art and engineering that made his works stand out, as he viewed art from the lens of a mechanic and vice versa.

Imagine the joy of seeing art come to life, moving and swaying instead of just being still. That’s what Calder brought to the table with his invention of the ‘mobile.’ These curious sculptures weren’t just pieces of metal strung together; they were balanced perfectly, capturing the essence of life, movement, and playfulness. 

Calder’s mobiles range from tiny pieces you could hold in your hand to gigantic installations that you could walk under.

What is Modernism?

The art world is vast, with artists over the years constantly trying to break boundaries and redefine the definition of art. 

Modernism is one such significant movement that started in the late 1800s and flourished in the first half of the 20th Century.

During the modernist era, artists wanted to break free from the traditional shackles: new inventions, technologies, and the overall changing lifestyle influenced them. After all, if the world was evolving, why should art be left behind? 

Untitled, Calder, 1930

Paintings weren’t just portraits or landscapes anymore; sculptures weren’t mere imitations of reality. Art became abstract, symbolic, and sometimes even questioned the very nature of art itself.

Historical context

The times when Calder was creating his masterpieces were both thrilling and challenging. The world was witnessing a technological revolution. Imagine a world transitioning from horse carriages to cars, from letters to radios transmitting voices over vast distances. These advancements were reshaping everyday life.

But on the flip side, the world was also grappling with the shadows of World War I and World War II. Countries were in conflict, families were separated, and there was a general atmosphere of uncertainty. Amidst this chaos, art became a refuge.

Space Tunnel, Calder, 1932

It was a space for expressing hope, fears, dreams, and realities. For many, including Calder, art was not just a passion but a means of communication. Through his mobiles, Calder brought a sense of movement, suggesting that despite challenges, life moves on, always in a state of flux but also in balance.

Younger Students: Focus on Calder’s playful nature, comparing his mobiles to toys, and explaining Modernism as artists “trying something new.”
Middle School Students: Delve deeper into Calder’s engineering background and how he combined that with art, making the connection between technological advancements (like cars and radios) and Modernism.
High School Students: Discuss the broader societal changes, technological advancements, and the impacts of World War I and World War II on the art community and the emergence of movements like Modernism. Highlight how artists like Calder sought to represent and respond to these shifts in their works.

What is a “mobile”?

A mobile sculpture is a type of kinetic art that consists of balanced, free-moving components often suspended in the air. The name “mobile” is derived from the French term “mobile,” which means “movable” or “capable of moving.” The term was coined by Marcel Duchamp, a French-American artist known for his influence on conceptual art and his association with the Dada movement. He came up with the term to describe the kinetic sculptures of his friend, American artist Alexander Calder.

Art of Petals, Calder, 1941

These artworks can vary in size, from small, delicate pieces suitable for homes to monumental outdoor installations. The beauty of a mobile sculpture lies in its ability to move and change, usually driven by air currents or motors, creating a dynamic, ever-evolving visual experience.

Hands-on Activity


Step 1: Frame the fish

Step 2: Shape the scales

Step 3: Assemble your mobile sculpture

Step 4: Decorate (optional)


By the end of this activity, each student should have a unique, Calder-inspired fish mobile ready to dance in the air!



Cultural and historical connections

Bauhaus Movement: Originating in Germany, the Bauhaus was a revolutionary school of art, architecture, and design that greatly influenced Modernism. Their principles of form following function and the unity of art and technology echo in Calder’s works.

The Messenger of Autumn, Paul Klee, 1922

French Surrealism: Given the references to surrealist cultures in the lesson plan, diving deeper into the French surrealist movement can provide cultural insights. Artists like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte challenged reality in their works, a reflection of the broader societal shifts during the early 20th century.

Native American Dreamcatchers: Originating from Native American cultures, dreamcatchers were believed to give protection from negative dreams or spirits. Made using a web design and often adorned with feathers, they move with the wind, bearing some resemblance in function (protection) and form (movement) to mobiles.

Learn more on The Indigenous Foundation

Japanese Koinobori: Koinobori are carp-shaped windsocks traditionally flown in Japan to celebrate Tango no Sekku, a children’s day. They symbolize hope that children will grow up strong and resilient. Like Calder’s mobiles, these moving artworks play with wind and balance and can be used to discuss cultural symbols of growth, strength, and hope.

Inter-curricular connections:

Younger students:

Older students:

External resources:

The Calder Foundation – A treasure trove of information about Calder, his works, exhibitions, and other resources.

MoMA’s Collection on Modernism – The Museum of Modern Art’s website provides visual and informative content on Modernist artworks.

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