Building a Sculpture

Lao Tzu
Mark di Suvero

Students will learn what a sculpture is by looking at images of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture Lao Tzu. They will compare its size to other objects in and around the classroom and experiment with various building materials and found objects in an effort to get a sense of how sculptures are created.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 30 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • explain that sculptures are not flat and that we can touch and feel them;
  • compare the size of Lao Tzu to other objects in and around the classroom;
  • construct a sculpture using various found objects and other building materials; and
  • identify and appreciate the similarities and differences between other classmates’ sculptures.


  1. Warm-up: Take the students outside to play on the playground. If you have larger play sets or jungle gyms, lead to class to those.
  2. Back in the classroom, show the students Lao Tzu by Mark di Suvero. Introduce the term sculpture to ensure the students understand what kind of art they are looking at. Explain to the children that a sculpture is a piece of art that is not flat; it is something that they can touch and feel the shape and texture of, just like blocks or toys. Even though Lao Tzu would be too heavy to hold, they would be able to touch, feel, and even climb on it. Ask the students: What do you think this sculpture would feel like? Would it be hard or soft?
  3. Ask the students how big they think this sculpture is. Do they think it is bigger or smaller than their chair? Than a chalkboard? Than the play sets or jungle gyms on the playground? Explain that this sculpture is bigger than the equipment on the playground! You may want to compare the size of the sculpture to your school building or another structure of similar height so the students can see how tall it really is. Would they want to play on the Lao Tzu sculpture? What part would they want to play on? Make sure and explain that not all sculptures are this big and not all can be climbed on.
  4. Divide the children into groups of three and give each group a variety of building materials such as blocks, Legos, or even plastic containers. Invite them to build a sculpture and encourage them to build it as tall as they can! Make sure to point out that the structures they are building are also sculptures, even though they’re not as tall or big as di Suvero’s. Sculptures can be all sizes!
  5. At the end of the building phase, have the students walk around and view their classmates’ work. Ask them questions about what is similar and what is different between the different works of art that they constructed. How tall do they think their sculptures are compared to Lao Tzu?


  • Various building materials and found objects (Legos, building blocks, pattern blocks, Tupperware containers, pencil boxes, etc.)
  • Hard flat surface or board on which to build a sculpture
  • About the Art section on Lao Tzu
  • One color copy of the sculpture for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Lao Tzu


Mark di Suvero


Height: 29.5 ft. Width: 16.5 ft. Depth: 36.5 ft.

Funds from NBT Foundation, Jan and Frederick Mayer by exchange, and friends of modern & contemporary art, 1996.11

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

Mark di Suvero was born in China in 1933 to Italian parents who were serving as diplomats in Shanghai. He vividly recalls visiting the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace complex located in the heart of Beijing, and marveling at the experience of space as at once infinite and comprehensible. When he was seven years old, di Suvero’s family moved to San Francisco where he dropped out of high school to explore the United States. After studying art at the University of California at Berkeley, di Suvero moved to New York in 1956 and did construction work to support himself while working on his art. Di Suvero started off creating sculptures out of wooden beams, metal pipes, old tires, and other discarded items. His materials would soon grow to I-beams, like those used in Lao Tzu, which are made of steel and typically used for support in houses.

In 1960, di Suvero was forced to quit his construction job after an on-site accident crushed his pelvis. This didn’t stop him from creating art, however. After using a wheelchair for the next decade, he began walking again with braces and crutches. Despite his limited mobility and the industrial qualities of his sculptures, di Suvero performs most of the work himself. “I do most of the cutting, welding, and crane work,” he says. The artist uses his crutch, several cranes, a cherry picker, and welding equipment that he operates himself to bring the sketches of his artworks to life.

What Inspired It

Di Suvero moves directly from drawings of his ideas to the actual realization of his sculptures, with no three-dimensional models in between. “If it works in space on paper, it’ll work with I-beams,” he says. In fact, some have likened his sculptures, with their strong diagonal lines and looping forms, to drawings or “doodles” brought to life in space. Even though this sculpture is nearly 30 feet high, 36 feet long, and weighs 16.5 tons, di Suvero insists he does not make “monumental sculpture.” Instead, he aims to create sculptures that will activate the spaces, the structures, and the people around them. Di Suvero attempts to engage viewers with his sculptures, saying, “I believe that certain structures have a certain resonance for people.” Sonnet Hanson, DAM Master Teacher for Modern and Contemporary Art, describes Lao Tzu as “a jungle gym for the imagination—both for di Suvero, who animates space through strong but playful lines, and for viewers, who can make their own associations with the shapes, colors, line, weight of the sculpture and the space that it animates.”

Di Suvero names his sculptures after things he cares deeply about, drawing from his studies and interests in philosophy, poetry, music, dance, science, and art history. Some of his titles acknowledge people who inspire him, like Mother Theresa and jazz musician Charlie Parker. He named this sculpture after Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher from the 6th century BC whose writings are the foundation of Taoism (a centuries-old tradition that bases human experience on nature, vitality, and peace). But di Suvero is cautious about assigning specific meaning to his sculptures. “I try to keep them abstract,” he says. “The titles are just a handle.”



This sculpture includes circular shapes, strong lines, and sharp angles. Look for the interlocking arcs di Suvero uses to link the I-beams together.


At the top of the structure, there is a mobile steel beam in the shape of an L that moves with the wind.


According to di Suvero, the color was chosen to contrast the blue skies of Colorado.

Dynamics of Space

This sculpture is located in the plaza between the Denver Public Library and the North Building of the Denver Art Museum. Seeing the sculpture from different points of view—up close, far away, and at different angles—might make it seem like a completely different object. Notice the relationship between the sculpture and the buildings, people, and space around it. Also notice how the shadows cast by the sculpture play a roll in how it is seen.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.