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Robert Therrien: Poetry in 3D

For Grades 5–12

Related to Robert Therrien
(July 3–October 27, 2013)


Featured Works
Background Information for Educators
Gallery Visit
In the Classroom
Public Speaking and Performance Art Connections
New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum 


Robert Therrien
(American, born 1947)
No title (snowman), 1989
Silver on bronze
34 x 16 x 16 inches (86.3 x 40.6 x 40.6 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
The Panza Collection and George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund, by exchange, George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund and Charles Clifton Fund, by exchange, 2008
(pictured above right and at bottom of page)

Robert Therrien
(American, born 1947)
No title (red chapel), 1985
Enamel on wood
33 3/4 x 11 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches (85.7 x 29.2 x 11.4 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
The Panza Collection and George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund, by exchange, George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund and Charles Clifton Fund, by exchange, 2008
(pictured at bottom of page)

Robert Therrien
(American, born 1947)
No title (yellow hat), 1986
Wood, bronze, and enamel
50 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (128.3 x 31.8 x 14 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
The Panza Collection and George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund, by exchange, George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund and Charles Clifton Fund, by exchange, 2008
(pictured at bottom of page

Robert Therrien (American, born 1947)
Robert Creeley (American, 1926–2005)
Michel Butor (French, born 1926)
7 & 6: Robert Creeley, Robert Therrien, Michel Butor, 1988
12 x 9 3/4 x 1 3/8 inches (30.5 x 24.8 x 3.5 cm)
Collection G. Robert Strauss, Jr. Memorial Library, Albright-Knox Art Gallery
(pictured at bottom of page


Students will:

  • Become familiar with the artist Robert Therrien and his sculptures
  • Create a personal connection with Robert Therrien’s art through written and oral expression
  • Discover connections between visual art and poetry 


  • Clipboards and pencils for Gallery visit
  • Poster board and writing materials for presentations
  • Paper for writing and illustrating
  • Robert Therrien Web Activity Sheet (PDF) 


About the Artist
Los Angeles–based artist Robert Therrien has been making sculpture for more than three decades, transforming ordinary objects and forms into extraordinary works of art. Since the 1970s, Therrien (born 1947) has created work inspired by memory and the everyday—a snowman, a chapel, a coffin, a keyhole, a stack of plates—coaxing humble elements into surreal configurations through abstraction, repetition, and variations in color and scale. Household shapes become unfamiliar, colors appear simple yet indistinguishably enigmatic, and references to known things are evoked and then deliberately blurred. His modestly sized, exquisitely hand-wrought early sculptures are minimal, simplified shapes abstracted from reality, and his later works, despite their industrialized and imposing presence, can also be readily identified as having a basis in real life. Large in scale, highly fabricated, and often distorted, they become less real even as they are more recognizable.

Robert Therrien and Poetry
Robert Therrien was introduced to Robert Creeley, a well-known poet and University at Buffalo professor, and Michel Butor, a French author, in the mid-1980s. This began a collaboration in which Therrien would scribble images or paste photographs of his sculptures into a notebook and Creeley or Butor would respond by writing a corresponding poem.

Here is an example of one of Creeley’s poems that was inspired by an image of a yellow chapel very similar to No title (red chapel):

They were going up in
A straight line right
To God, once they died –
The hills of home here
Are a yellow pointer, again
God’s simplistic finger –
Over the hill, the steeple
Still glows in the late light –
All else whited out. 

Poetry is a great connection with Therrien’s art. Although the images in his works are recognizable, the way he manipulates them causes a viewer to pause, think, question, remember, and imagine.

Glossary of Selected Literary Devices 

Alliteration is the repetition of a particular sound in the stressed syllables of a work of literature. Most often these sounds are the first consonants of a series of word (for example, “big bad butterfly”), but they don’t have to be (for example, “stubby cubby”).

Personification attributes human characteristics or human nature to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract concepts (for example, “the happy snowman”).

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of two consecutive verses, sentences, or clauses to add emphasis (for example, Shakespeare’s line “Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!”).


Sculptures are three-dimensional and experiential; the sculptures featured in this lesson plan need to be visited in person in order to understand their impact.

Web of Words Activity
Prior to your visit, print out the Robert Therrien Web Activity Sheet (PDF). Visit the Gallery with your students and view Therrien’s sculptures No title (snowman), No title (red chapel), and No title (yellow hat).

Discuss the works of art as a group. Questions you might include are:

  • What about each sculpture is like the object in real life mentioned in its title? What about it is different?
  • What memories do you have about an object like this?
  • Can you find other works in the exhibition by Robert Therrien that remind you of this one? Can you explain why?

Have each student choose one of the three featured works of art to complete the following activity:

  1. Ask students to write what the sculpture reminds them of in the blue box.
  2. Ask students to pay very close attention to the sculpture and write four words or phrases that describe it in the orange ovals.
  3. Ask students to look at the words they have written in each orange oval and write additional words or phrases that come to mind in the purple ovals. For example, when looking at the snowman sculpture, a student may have written the descriptive word “golden” and also perhaps the descriptive word “shiny,” so words for the purple circles might include “jewelry,” “medal,” “Go to the Olympics,” or “my garden.” Have them use all the circles if they can.

(Please note that pencils are the only writing materials allowed in the galleries.)


Group Work
Have the students break into three groups corresponding with the sculpture they observed. Encourage the students to share with each other what they wrote on their Web Activity Sheet. On a large sheet of paper, have them create one large word web combining their thoughts and observations to present to the rest of the class. As a class, discuss how all or some of the words in one word web relate. Are there any themes they all recognize? Add those themes to each web. Discuss how those themes resonate with their own lives, as a class, in pairs, or in groups. 

Share the artist background Robert Therrien and Poetry. Robert Creeley often used free verse when writing his poems. Free verse is an open form of poetry that closely follows natural rhythms of speech. Let the students choose a theme along with one of Therrien’s sculptures for inspiration.

Have each student write a poem about a theme (perhaps one identified in the class discussion) of their own choice with the following tips:

  • Encourage them to think of the feeling or idea they want to portray in their poem.
  • The words in the class’ word webs are good starting places if they are stuck.
  • Explain how using short words can make the poem sound choppy and long words can slow the poem down.
  • Some literary devices that can be used are alliteration, personification, or anaphora (see Glossary of Literary Devices).

Plan time to edit and share the poems.


Poetry Reading
Have the students practice reading their poems aloud. Enlist the help of a performer or performing arts teacher if you have one available. 

Go over tips for public speaking:

  • Speak with confidence and stand up straight
  • Look at your audience
  • Speak loudly enough that everyone can hear
  • Don’t use “fillers” such as “um,” “like,” “well,” etc.
  • Think about how every word sounds

Poetry Slam
Encourage ideas for transforming the classroom into an appropriate setting for a poetry slam. Options include designing and making decorations, devising an audience seating plan, adding musical accompaniments and movement to the poetry performances, and planning refreshments. Choose a day for the students to share their poems in front of an audience of their peers and staff members from your school.


Have students discuss or answer individually the following question: How can visual artwork be like poetry?


  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2, 4, 6
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing 2, 3, 4, 5, 10