Making doodads: Creative sculpture competition engages serious thought, learning

Collaboration, teamwork, critical and higher-order thinking, decision-making -- all buzzwords for America's education standards called Common Core, right? 

No, not in this instance; we are talking doodads. 

Hillsborough County students have the opportunity to learn these “21st Century skills” through a hands-on sculpting contest called the Annual Repurposed Doodad Sculpture Competition. The rewards are tangible too. Winners receive cash prizes (last year participants won $4,500) and all the art teachers that participate will be honored with individual gifts for their art classes.

“It’s probably the most amazing thing we do with kids all year and its what I personally get most excited about,” says Karen Barmore, 20-year veteran Art Teacher at Gorrie Elementary in Hyde Park who has participated in the contest since it started in 2012.  

The Doodad Project, now in its fifth year, aims to support arts education, including in underserved areas, through a unique sculpture contest that uses readily available re-purposed items and is open to all students K-12.   

This year, the medium is paper and there is still plenty of time to enter, entry forms and projects aren’t due until late April.

Although the organizers are referring to this year’s contest as “Tampa Bay in Paper Mache,” there are actually three categories: “Tampa Bay history,” “animals from literature” and “musical instruments.”  

Students may submit as groups or individuals, sculptures up to 4 feet in the round, structured entirely of paper. Paper mache to origami, the rules are pretty straightforward. Sculptures may include any kind of paper (cardboard, newspaper, books, magazines, copy paper, origami paper, tissue paper, wallpaper, etc.) plus binder (tape, glue, flour & water, etc.) and color. None of the sculpture or its decoration can use foam core, plastic, wood, metal, wire or any other non-paper material. Armatures -- the underlying structure -- must also be made of paper.

Dana Warner, K-12 Art Education Supervisor for Hillsborough County Schools, says the district participates in about 35 arts-related contests in a year, but that the doodad competition is “very interesting and rare” and is the only sculpture contest. Unlike other contests available to Hillsborough County students, this one is unusually inclusive, both in terms of ages (all grades) and in terms of the student body -- literally all Hillsborough County students are welcome: homeschoolers to private, charter, and, of course, public schools. 

The birth of a doodad

The contest is the brainchild of retired real estate Developer Jack Wyatt whom you can find regularly giving tours at the Tampa Bay History Center as a volunteer docent.  

Like any good creation, serendipity played a central role. 

“I was president of my neighborhood association in Hyde Park and an assisted living [facility] opened up and invited us to do our board meeting,” recalls Wyatt. That was Horizon Bay Hyde Park, billed as a “luxury senior living community.”  

They had 33 plastic faux street poles they wanted to get rid of, 10.5 feet tall “made to look historic” with globes on top for the lights. Wyatt connected with Candy Olson, at the time a longtime member of the Hillsborough County School Board, Kathy Durdin, president of Tampa Regional Artists, and Dana Warner. “I walked in with these globes and said, repurpose these and we’ll put on an art show!” Wyatt told them.  

They’d hoped they would get 10 participants for that first art show to be hosted by Horizon Bay. 

To their surprise, 16 schools and 150 kids participated. “Eyeballs, ships, fish -- it was the most amazing thing we’d seen in our lives,” says Wyatt. “Kids had a great time, we gave a lot of cash prizes, arts supplies for teachers; all donated. So, we thought: that’s it, we’re done!”

Businesses see value

Instead, the doodad contest has grown in participation and prestige. 

The Tampa Bay History Center now hosts the Doodad of Tampa Bay exhibit -- all accepted works are displayed in an exclusive exhibit for a full month. Student participation has ballooned; last year about 500 participated in the exhibit. The Doodad’s Best in Show “Hope Against Genocide” by Andrea Szikszay from 2013, a year 14,000 cigar boxes were donated to repurpose for Doodad sculptures, is now on permanent exhibit in the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.   

The competition has also attracted high-level sponsors including the law firm of Hill Ward & Henderson and the Duckwall Foundation. Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture & the Arts (TBBCA), recently announced it is supporting the contest as well in what they call a pARTnership.   

“TBBCA is built on the philosophy that the arts are good for business, and business is good for the arts,” notes Susana Weymouth, Executive Director of TBBCA. “Arts and culture are a proven economic generator [and] are key to attracting, retaining and developing a workforce with a strong skill set of creativity and innovation.”   

Weymouth says the pARTnership with the Tampa Bay History Center and the doodad project are synergistic with TBBCA’s mission to support and highlight the community’s arts and cultural assets. Furthermore, Weymouth emphasizes that support for arts education and engagement for children and youth are “crucial to building the next generation of artists, enthusiasts, audiences and a thriving creative class.” 

Life lessons and tips for doodaders

Fitting in doodads during the school day can be a challenge, even at private schools like Academy Prep Center of Tampa where kids are getting 1.5 hours of art education per week. Hillsborough County public schools currently allot 30 minutes per week to the subject in elementary school, in latter years it can become a daily elective.

Both Barmore, the Gorrie Elementary School Art Teacher, and Amanda Fleishbein, Art Teacher at Academy Prep, a private middle school for bright kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, recommend setting aside a well-structured after-school sessions.  

Though their students tend to come from opposite ends of the economic spectrum, to hear either teacher discuss the project, you might mistake it for a business class. Common denominators include time management, mentoring, collaboration and did we mention problem solving?

Barmore, who has undergraduate degrees in studio art and sculpture as well as a masters in art education from Florida State University, meets with about 20 kids for a six-week session where she and a co-teacher put the kids in groups and let the brainstorming begin. From there the kids vote on the group’s theme, then begin design work on paper and finally begin to build their sculptures. 

“We are just resources at that point. I learned from the beginning, their ideas and creativity far surpass mine,” says Barmore who says a lot of problem solving and critical thinking goes on. “They have some things fall apart -- and we talk about how that is real life! Trial and error ... the greatest inventors have been artists and experimenters.” 

Fleischbein, a resident of Seminole Heights who initially came to Tampa as an Americorps volunteer with a degree in arts education from the University of South Carolina, is doing the doodad competition for the first time with her art students.  

Her students are all doing individual projects, but the same collaborative environment is taking place, kids helping other kids, showing each other how to do something new. “They start teaching each other which is super cool to see,” says Fleischbein.

“In a very digital world, with kids with terrible fine motors skills, forcing them to solve problems tactically and three-dimensionally is really important, especially as they become more screen-attached,” comments Fleischbein, who says none of her students had ever had an experience with paper mache previous to the project. “When they can physically play with it to solve that problem, they’ve 100 percent figured it on their own.”

Both teachers recognize the value of failure in the process. “The first time is never as good as when you practice and practice,” says Fleischbein. “It’s a skill we don’t often get to teach kids. It is an awesome learning and growth opportunity.”

“I hope all the art teachers in the county get involved with it,” says Barmore.  “If they could see the power of it – going to the museum, seeing their work there, the collaboration and teamwork. True 21st Century skills that we are trying to lead our students to – bam! Right there.”

For official guidelines for the 2016 Doodad Competition, click here

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant for regional and global businesses. Though she has always been passionate about arts and culture, she spent many years in the tech and B2B corporate worlds both in the U.S. and abroad. With a degree in Economics and International Relations from The American University in Washington, DC, she considers politics her favorite sport and follows it avidly with as much humor as she can muster. Based in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, Kendra is a mother and wife, a news junkie, and lover of all things creative.
Signup for Email Alerts