Layer on Layer

Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band Choctaw, Cherokee, American)

Young learners will explore the layers of geometric shapes in Jeffrey Gibson's Freedom, and explore a variety of types of materials to make a multi-layered art work of their own.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Invent and Discover to Create
Lesson Length
One to four 30 minute lessons Depending on your students, this lesson plan could be a one time 30 minute lesson, or a project over multiple days.

Students will be able to:

  • identify shapes and colors;
  • verbalize the effects of layering materials.


1. Invite children to take a close look at Freedom by Jeffrey Gibson. Share some details about the artist from the “About the Artist” section of this resource. Invite the children to share any observations they make about the artwork and record them. You may want to prompt their close looking discussion with questions like “What shapes did the artist use? What materials do you see in the piece? Where do you think the materials might be from? How do you think the materials are attached to one another?”

2. Next, offer students a variety of papers (tissue paper, construction paper, transparencies, etc.) and other materials, glue, and scissors. Encourage children to experiment with layering the various materials, and have them make observations about the different results. You can prompt their experimentation and discussion with any of the following topics and/or questions:

  • Shape: “Describe the shape you have cut.”; “Where else do you see a shape like that?”
  • Directional language: “How did you choose to put that next to this?”; “Tell me about each layer you have put together.”; “Tell me about what is underneath the top layer.”
  • Transparency: “Tell me about which materials you can see through.”; “Why do you think you can see through some materials, but not others?”
  • Color: “How do the colors change when you layer them?”; “How else could you change this color?”
  • Thickness: “Tell me about how your artwork feels to the touch.”; “Is there a way we could measure the thickness of your layers? How?”

3. Once students feel that they have completed their artworks using the materials provided (this may take a few minutes or a few days), encourage children to gather their own materials to add to their creations. You could choose to use found materials in the classroom, like buttons, beads, string, etc. This may be an appropriate time to introduce the specific items the artist Jeffrey Gibson used while creating the parfleche in Freedom, such as recycled materials, rawhide, paint, and beads. In some of his other artwork, Gibson uses items he found and saved over time, including pieces of his grandmother’s jewelry. The process of collecting materials and adding to their layered artwork may extend over a lengthy period of time for students who are particularly interested in this topic.

Extension ideas:

Make a math connection! Have students gather items from the classroom that are also geometric shapes, and then have them make comparisons between their findings, the shapes in Jeffrey Gibson’s art, and any shapes students have cut for their own layered artworks.

Make a science connection! At one point in his artistic career, Gibson cut his canvases out of their frames and took them to a laundromat to wash the colors away. Tell children this story and invite them to experiment with washing their creations, allowing them to dry, and noting any differences that result. This may also be an appropriate time to teach children about failure, acceptance, and learning from their experiences. You could experiment in your classroom sink with using various materials to wash student art, including plain water, dish soap, vinegar, etc. Have students make observations about the different effects that result from washing with different materials. Gibson continued to add to his paintings after washing them, and students may also enjoy this process.

Literature Connections

Beautiful Oops, Barney Saltzberg

Shapes All Around, Kate Riggs

Shapes, Shanti Sparrow

Perfect Square, Michael Hall


  • A printed image of Freedom by Jeffrey Gibson
  • Various paper mediums such as tissue paper, construction paper, transparent paper, cardstock, doilies, etc.
  • Other materials, such as fabric scraps
  • Glue
  • Scissors


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Invent and Discover to Create
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
  • Science
    • Physical Science
  • Students know and understand common properties, forms, and changes in matter and energy
  • Mathematics
    • Shape, Dimension, and Geometric Relationships
21st Century Skills
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction


Jeffrey Gibson, Mississippi Band Choctaw, Cherokee, American, b. 1972
Born: Colorado
Work Locations: Brooklyn, NY, Hudson, NY
About the Artist

Jeffrey Gibson is a contemporary artist who was born in Colorado Springs, CO in 1972. He is a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, like his father, and his mother is Cherokee. His father worked for the government, and Gibson spent time in Korea and Germany as well as the United States while he was growing up. After getting his B.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995, he also spent time in London to earn his M.A. at the Royal College of Art. He now lives and works in Hudson, New York, and produces paintings, sculptures, and performances that draw on his Native heritage, abstract art, music, club culture, fashion, literature, and politics. He says, “I make my work with respect for tradition, but in no way do I claim that what I’m doing is traditional…I’ve tried to remain true to and honor the circumstances I was born to, and I’ve made the best work I can.”

Gibson says, “I try to begin each new body of work with a month of just experimentation, with no end product in mind. This is crucial and allows for the processing of previous bodies of work, but also opens up new directions for current and upcoming projects.”

For this work, Gibson bound together tipi poles with rawhide strips that were put on wet and dried, tight, in place (also called lashing together). As for the trunk, he cut, folded, and sewed buffalo hide into the shape he wanted. He then drew the geometric designs onto the surface of the box, and added in the colors with a brush. Gibson started out with larger blocks of color painted in triangle, square, and parallelogram shapes, then broke these up by adding more shapes in different colors on top of the initial forms.

What Inspired It

The structure of this sculpture was inspired by the parfleche (pronounced “par-flesh”) containers and travois (pronounced “tra-voy” or “trav-wa”) that were used by Native American tribes from the Plains. A travois was typically made from tipi poles, and would have been pulled by a horse or dog. Nomadic tribes used them to transport their belongings, which were often stored in parfleches. This word is thought to have come from the French words for “to parry (defend),” parer, and “arrow,” fleche, and originally referred to rawhide shields or body armor. “Parfleche” eventually came to be associated with rawhide in general, and envelope-shaped rawhide containers in particular (to learn about one of these traditional forms and how it was made, click here). For this sculpture, Gibson constructed an oversized travois out of repurposed tipi poles, and an oversized, trunk-like, buffalo hide parfleche container that he painted with acrylic.

Gibson drew on the structures of Native American rawhide containers and travois when he created this sculpture. This work also reflects other inspirations he often references in his art: geometry used by twentieth-century abstract painters such as Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella, and the painted geometric designs found on historic Native American parfleches. Gibson first discovered parfleche bags as an undergraduate student, when he interned at The Field Museum in Chicago helping various Native tribes conduct research into the North American collections. Originally, he was more interested in the form and function of parfleches. After starting to seriously research them a few years before he made Freedom, he came to appreciate the painted aspects of them, and made connections between their designs and Western abstract art. “Only after researching more about the geometric abstractions found on parfleches did I find out that, traditionally, these were painted by women only. I came to appreciate parfleche painting as an artist, comparing the designs to modernist geometric abstract painting.”

The parfleche also had a very personal meaning. He said, “Having grown up moving around my whole life provided personal experiences that have caused me to identify as somewhat nomadic . . . always questioning what ‘home’ is defined by. I have become comfortable moving and have found great freedom in that ability.”


Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles


Gibson intentionally made the travois and parfleche elements of this sculpture bigger than they normally would have been in their traditional forms – especially the parfleche. He describes it as “extraordinarily huge,” and says, “I wanted it to be outsized…”

As an empty vessel, the parfleche stands as a metaphor for the things both physical and psychological that we carry with us and contribute to our sense of self. What do you think the large scale of this parfleche says about those things for most people? What would you include in yours?

Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles

Geometric designs

Gibson created the geometric designs seen here by first drawing large triangle, square, and parallelogram shapes onto the hide, then filling them in with acrylic paint. He then layered smaller, different colored shapes on top of the original forms.

Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles


Gibson began painting on rawhide instead of canvas when he collaborated with other Native American artists for an exhibition in 2012. Artists would send him rawhide objects they had made, such as drums, and he would paint designs on them. He says, “I like the idea of having to care for something and that each hide is unique unto itself. There are marks in the hide from the life of the animal but also from the processing of the hide. And then when I painted on it, I was hooked.” Gibson likes the smoothness of hides, as well as the fact that they can be bent and folded into different shapes, and they retain the shapes when they harden.

Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles


Gibson uses materials that are not traditionally seen in fine art, like beads and fringe. These materials come from the world of craft, which has historically been looked down upon as “lesser” than fine art. Gibson busts apart that distinction once and for all in a way that also honors the long tradition of handmade objects in Native cultures.

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.