Friday, March 21, 2014

Jell-O Workshop Ideas

Tonight we will have a public performance at Cozmic, a benefit for LILA (Lane Independent Living Alliance). One of our main players, Mark Roberts, does this quarterly, with karaoke and fun. I'm working hard to keep down the anxiety and have fun, and mostly succeeding. We'll be singing most of our songs from this year's Jell-O Show, which will be performed for reals next Saturday the 29th, and one of them is "mine" meaning I will be the lead singer, with backups of course.

Another of our players, Robert Gillespie, wrote the original words of the parody of Led Zepplin's D'yer Maker, and it was funny enough as he wrote it, but the Queen of Jell-O Art hijacked it and made it hers, rewriting the verses a tad to fit her selfish purposes. It should be surprising and at least funny if not hilarious.

I'm just beginning to get out of the initial earnestness to just remember it into the comic interpretations which will heighten the enjoyment for the audience, and myself in the process. I'm just beginning to get to the point where I can look at the audience and interact. Let's hope tonight is the moment when I cross over into the real joys of performing, where instead of an anxiety producer it's just a huge fun producer. Everyone says that's how it works.

I haven't been working on my Jell-O, but I still have over a week. I have faith in myself. Getting the shirts done was a major step, and I have a few more of the props and set pieces to finish up. It's rolling toward the inevitable conclusion on the 29th. I know it will all be over in a blink and then back to the mundane life.

I discovered some notes I made long ago when I was doing art workshops in my son's school, about how one might do a Jell-O Art workshop with students. I'll pass them on. People tell me every year that I should teach classes, and maybe someday I will, but anyone who wants to try it with a group of their own is welcome to.

I think this would be best done over several days, but you can decide about that for yourself. Basically you are going to allow the students to experiment with art techniques, using gelatin as the medium. You'll be letting them learn how the substance goes from powder, through the liquid state to the solid state, and even to the dried, permanent state if you have the time and space.

I recommend using the plain, uncolored, unflavored gelatin, sold in stores as Knox and available in bulk as gelatin, used in the food industry for various things. It really is made from animal offal, mostly hides, so if that offends you, you will have to find a way to justify that. I employ irony and the concept that if we are going to farm animals, we are going to have to find ways to use all of the parts. You might just want to hide those facts if you can. You could give a little history if you like. Jell-O brand is over a century old now, and quite well established in cuisine. Personally, I don't eat it anymore.Some kids might get confused about the ediblity of it, but I would suggest making it clear that this is not the kind to eat, though of course in your own kitchen you can make it clean enough to eat if you choose.

Depending if you want jiggle or not, you are going to mix the powder into water in some proportion to suit your end product. The package directions are 1/4 oz (one little Knox packet) to one cup of water, and with that you still get jiggle, but a longer gel time and you will need to refrigerate it. Make it stronger and you diminish the jiggle, but it will harden at room temperature and won't easily melt. For the dried kind that I make, I use 3 ounces gelatin per cup of water, and sometimes more. Somewhere in between there will be the hardness you want, so you might have to make a few test batches to see.

So have the kids sprinkle the gelatin into the cold water, stirring, and wait 5-10 minutes while the gelatin blooms (absorbs water.) It will be in a cloudy, semi-solid state, and you then can melt it in the microwave for a minute or two, depending on the quantity. With smaller kids you might want to do this for them in one container and divide it up, or microwave several containers at once. Obviously you will use microwave-safe containers. I use canning jars. Then you have to let it cool a little and it clears up into a yellowish liquid. Add some color at this stage if you like, food coloring, dye, paint, whatever you have. No one is going to eat this, but of course in schools you have to use non-toxic materials just in case.

If it has foam on the top, you can skim that off, or just use it anyway. Bubbles won't ruin the results. Next you carefully pour it into your chosen mode of setting. One choice is molds, probably the easiest. Most anything can be used for a mold: plastic blister paks, plastic dishes, actual molds, candy or Jell-O; or advanced students can make their own molds. If you have something you want to use that has a hole in it, you can plug that with modeling clay. To make simple molds you can press objects into clay or warm wax to make an impression. Plastic toys that don't have a lot of small detail and crevices might be fun for kids. You could use the first day to make the molds if you wanted and to do a demo.

For the dried stuff I do, pour the liquid in a thin, 1/8" or so layer in pans or dishes, and let it set. In a couple of hours (maybe less) at room temp (you could speed that up by making it stronger or chilling it) it is firm enough to take it out of the pan, (try running something around the edge, a butter knife or your fingernail). Then you have to flip it and tend it a bit as it dries. I lay it partially over the edge of the dish so it gets a little air underneath and dries on both sides, but you could just leave it until the next day and flip it then.

It goes through various states of flexibility as it dries, so you could design some experiments with that in mind. Once it is completely dry, it is like plastic and you can then glue the pieces together with melted gelatin to make whatever you like. If this isn't too open for your artists, you can expand this with planning and designing.

If you don't want to dry it, take it out of the molds and play with it, try other art tools like clay tools on it, see what you can do. It's not very cooperative, so this can be frustrating or highly creative. You can glue the jiggly chunks with the melted gelatin, you can try to build with them like blocks; it's pretty open.

It will mold after a few days, so plan to compost it or throw it out. The dried stuff lasts practically forever, and you could embed a string to hang it, mount it on a stand, put it under glass, or do whatever makes it seem like art. You could try making paintings with it in liquid form or by sprinkling the powder on colored paper. If you are a teacher you probably already have some ideas. Classroom management might be the hardest part when you get silly like this. Plan other activities for the waiting times.

I hope this minimal introduction gives you some ideas. I find it quite magical and the qualities of transparency and glossiness are so very attractive. You can do a lot with color theory and you can do some impossible things spatially with it too. I have made long thin strings of it dried into curly plumes and made wonderful headbands that look extremely magnificent even though they have a tendency to poke people if you are a big hugger. Alas, there are dangers with any art form if you are not careful. Molten gelatin is not fun to spill on yourself, as it keeps burning and sticks to you as it cools, so be prepared to wash quickly if you get it on you, or keep it cool enough that no one will get hurt. You don't want to boil it over in the microwave either, and I have poured it into jars with miniscule defects and had the jar break...that is truly a mess. If you do spill, wait a bit and let it harden so you can peel it up in one piece. Don't step in it.

Please message me at if you have questions.This is supposed to be fun, so try to remember that and let yourself go into the magic. Bring your results to the Jell-O Art Show! There is no bad Jell-O art, and it is quite empowering to put your creation on a pedestal in a gallery and hobnob at the opening with a bunch of other prominent and significant local artists. Everything goes at the Jell-O Show. Everything literally goes at the end of the evening, but you are welcome to enjoy your art at home as long as it lasts.

And if you really want some fun, make something edible, maybe from candy molds or a vintage recipe, or a new recipe from the internet, and watch people eat it from the Tacky Food Buffet. Make sure to use all of the rules of cleanliness the health department would require, as you most definitely don't want to make anyone sick. If you can't assure the safety, just get some marshmallow peeps and arrange them in a diorama, a somewhat related art form we also love.

Whatever you do, come to the show! We raise funds for Maude Kerns Art Center so they can do other types of art workshops and programs, and you know you want to support that. See you on the 29th!

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