Identity Boxes

How are artists’ identities reflected in their art?


Key Staff

Visual Arts teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Composing and Planning, Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Creative Thinking: Creativity and Innovation


Artists Lucas Samaras and Joseph Cornell both explored the idea of personal identity through their art. Both created small "portrait" boxes that reveal as well as conceal identity through the use of objects and symbols. Students will research the artists' lives and background and then use the concepts of symbolic representation to present themselves by creating their own box that communicates their personal identity. Students will decorate their box and draw and display their self-portrait on the outside, inviting the viewer to find out more. They will then explore the concepts of visual symbols and metaphors and thoughtfully choose at least three items to represent their inner selves to go inside the box.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore and interpret the work of Lucas Samaras and Joseph Cornell, describe their use of diverse symbols and objects to signify new meaning and identity.
  • Define and compile materials that explore personal and cultural identity.
  • Create "identity boxes", with artistic representation of their internal and external identity.

Teaching Approach

Arts Learning

Teaching Methods

  • Studio Practice
  • Visual Instruction
  • Direct Instruction

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Internet Access
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Prior to beginning this lesson, familiarize yourself with Lucas Samaras and Joseph Cornell's artwork and their themes of personal identity and use of objects and symbols. Note the concepts of literal identity or representational portraits and symbolic identity and that this lesson deals with both of these concepts (i.e. the external and internal identity of a person.) The box the students will create is symbolic in that the outside of the box represents the external self and the inside of the box represents the internal self, or what one is choosing to reveal.

For more information on the artists referenced, visit:

Prior Student Knowledge

Familiarity with self-portraits

Familiarity with the concept of individual identity

Physical Space



  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Individualized Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Gather students together and hold up objects and pictures you have brought from your own personal collection. These can be objects such as a graduation tassel, baby items, lock of hair, mementos - any object that represents something about you or has special significance.

2. Have students identify the items, their purpose, and where or how they may have been used.

3. Discuss the items and their importance to you.

4. Ask students to guess why you might have saved these objects. Begin a discussion using these questions:

  • Do they say something about you?
  • Do they show interests or personal feelings?
  • What did you think when you first saw these objects?
  • How do these objects tell something about me?
  • What would you want people to know about you?
  • Can we know everything about someone just by looking at him or her?
  • What importance do objects and pictures have in communicating meaning?

Ask the students to verbally share with the class some of the objects they have kept and why they have kept them.

Build Knowledge

1. Begin a general discussion about symbolism with students. Ask students to come to the board and draw common, everyday symbols like the plus sign, peace sign, heart, etc. Ask students about the significance of these symbols. Are they used for different purposes, and do those uses change their meaning?

2. Explain that people use symbols to create a "message" in graphic and fine art, often incorporating widely recognized imagery. Discuss the difference between logos and symbols. Students should recognize the difference between culturally and personally understood symbols (like hearts) and the brand-symbols of a commodity, like the golden arches or the Nike "swoosh."

3. Have students work in pairs or small groups to complete the Symbols and Logos worksheet located within the Resource Carousel. Review students’ answers as a class.

4. Next, discuss personal symbols. Explain that artists often use symbols and imagery that have personal meaning for them but that may not be familiar or known to someone viewing the work. What is our "identity", and how can it be artistically represented? You may wish to use ArtsNet Minnesota's explanation of identity as a reference point and to spark class discussion. How do we create our identity and understand its meaning?

5. Present various objects from the classroom and discuss the different meanings these objects could have. Ask students to brainstorm the physical characteristics of each object. For example, an object like a paintbrush can mean that the person is an artist. A bookmark can mean the person likes to read, etc. Write the object name on the board and as students give meanings for that object, discuss it and write the meanings next to the object name.

6. Have students view the Assemblages of Joseph Cornell and Lucas Samaras slideshow. As students view each image, ask them to think about the meanings for the objects used on these assemblages, or "identity boxes." For example, the nails on the box could represent...? Ask the students to throw out any answer that comes into their head. Write the object name on the board and as students give potential meanings for that object, write the meanings next to the object name and discuss their responses.


Note: Prior to this part of the lesson, put student desks/tables in small groups and place a variety of everyday objects at each group. These objects can range from natural objects like seashells and rocks to movie tickets, receipts, and other man-made objects.

1. Have small groups of students sit at each table grouping, and have each group look at objects and images placed on the tables. Tell each group to pick three, and list as many meanings as they can think of for the object. Students should write down their ideas on the Object and Image worksheet located within the Resource Carousel.

2. Next, students will complete the Identity Survey located within the Resource Carousel and keep the survey with them. Give a small paper bag to each student, on which they will write their name. Students should put their completed survey in the bag and take it home. Students should put at least three objects that represent themselves into their paper bag and bring it to the next class. Explain to students that they may use a photograph, but that it must be a photo of them doing something significant, or a photo of someone (family, friend) who is important to them. Tell students that the photograph does not have to be literal, but rather can be symbolic of their identity.

3. Display examples of artist self-portraits in the classroom. Some examples you may include are Frida Kahlo, Albrecht Durer, and Van Gogh. Compare and contrast these self-portraits with the Lucas Samaras and Joseph Cornell boxes. Be sure that students comprehend that both the portraits and the identity boxes are types of self-portraits and that they communicate ideas about the artist.

4. Tell students that they will be making both of these kinds of self-portraits to go onto their artwork. Reference the previous discussion comparing literal vs. symbolic interpretation, then explain that one art form is representational, the other symbolic.


1. Distribute Self-Portrait and Identity Box Directions handout to students located within the Resource Carousel.

2. Give each student a box and a sheet of white paper large enough to cover one side of their box. Students will draw a representational self -portrait, which will be attached to the outside of their identity box. You may need to instruct the class on drawing faces, proportions, noticing details etc. As a guideline, use the A Lifetime of Color: Sanford ArtEdventures technique demonstration of drawing facial proportions. You may wish to make copies of the self-portrait template in the online example, and have students trace over this very lightly with pencil onto their drawing paper.

3. Demonstrate for students how to begin drawing a self-portrait. You may wish to use the following steps:

  1. Give each student a small mirror to use. Have students use the mirror and the template to draw their self-portrait. Students should draw the eyes, nose, mouth and ears first, and put in the hair last. (Students tend to want to do the hair first and get stuck on this.)
  2. Instruct students to notice shapes, and proportions, and their own individual features. Assist students in noticing their unique differences, but encourage the students not to get too bogged down as it won't be perfect.

4. Direct students to use colored pencils to draw in individual coloring of skin, eyes, hair, etc. Again, assist students in drawing in the basic shape of their hair, and encourage them not to become too bogged down in individual hair strands. Students will glue this portrait onto either the top or one of the sides of their box.

5. Next, students will decorate the outside of their box using scrap paper, fabric, beads, sequins, paint, craft items, etc. Remind students to cover the entire box, except the bottom, with a variety of materials, colors, and patterns – the box needs to attract the attention of the viewer. Have students line the inside of their box, but remind them to keep it simple, so as not to detract from the objects which will go inside. Have students place their three items inside their boxes and set them around the room.

6. Students will open each other's boxes and look at them. Encourage them to discuss the meanings of the contents of each other's boxes. They should also discuss any associated meaning attached to the decorations on the outside of their boxes. Discuss the concepts of internal and external identity and the differences between literal identity and symbolic identity. Ask students the following questions:

  • How can others really know what is going on inside of us?
  • How does your external self (appearance, behavior, etc.) communicate your internal self?
  • Did you learn something new about a classmate today? Describe what you learned.

How do photographs and artwork communicate meaning about a person? How is this process different from reading or hearing a story about a person?"


Assess the student's work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
Visual Art

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 2: Using knowledge of structures and functions

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 5: Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Language Arts Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes



Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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