Identity at Large

Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band Choctaw, Cherokee, American)

Students will examine Jeffrey Gibson’s parfleche (pronounced “par-flesh”)-inspired artwork Freedom, and explore how it might express his identity. Students will learn about the art concepts of geometric shape, color, and scale by creating their own artwork using materials of their choice to express something about their own identity.

Intended Age Group
Elementary (grades K-5)
Standards Area
Relate and Connect to Transfer
Lesson Length
Two 45 minute lessons

Students will…

  • explore the art concepts of geometric shape, color, and scale by creating their own artwork using materials of their choice;
  • reflect on their own art, and art by others, to think critically about art as a way of expressing identity.


Day 1 Introduction

  • Begin your lesson by introducing Jeffrey Gibson to your students. Refer to the “About the Artist” information provided to prepare your introduction.
  • Show students what a traditional parfleche is. Have students notice and name the details they see in the object as they engage in a close-looking activity like Ten Times Two.
  • Next, show them examples of Gibson’s art, specifically his parfleche-inspired sculpture Freedom (an image is included with this lesson), and have students engage in the Artful Thinking strategy “The Elaboration Game.” Have students get in groups of three or four, and give each group a color photograph of Freedom by Jeffrey Gibson. The first student identifies one section of the sculpture and makes an observation about it. The second, third, and fourth students elaborate on the first student’s statement, each adding new and/or more specific details to the previous observations. Students then move on to describing another part of the sculpture.
  • Explain to students that they will be creating their own art to share something about themselves with viewers. Their artwork must contain geometric designs and colors, and should illustrate something about who they are.
  • As a second step, they will also explore the concept of scale (note that Gibson’s work Freedom is much larger than traditional parfleches or travois, which are a type of sled). Students will begin by creating small, thumbnail sketches, that they will later enlarge. Each students’ sketch and larger drawing should be critiqued and/or displayed side by side so viewers can make the connection to Gibson’s play on scale in his sculpture.

Day 1 Artmaking

  • While looking at Gibson’s work, students will use colored pencils to sketch four thumbnail drawings featuring different geometric shapes. The thumbnail drawings should be the size of an index card.
  • Once finished with their geometric sketches, each student will choose a favorite thumbnail and show it to you. They should explain to you how and why they chose their favorites.
  • Students will then get a large piece of colored paper (12” x 18” or larger) and will begin drawing their geometric designs on the paper using pencils and rulers or other traceable shapes.
  • Students will add color and details to their designs just as Gibson did with his art. Students may use markers, oil pastels, or tempera paint.

○ For management purposes, it may be best to create media stations for painting and using pastels or markers in your classroom. For painting, it is helpful to have out a couple of bowls filled halfway with water, a number of paint palettes, paper towels, various sizes of paint brushes, and liquid tempera paints or tempera cakes. For markers, have several of each color accessible to students. For oil pastels, have several small boxes filled with an assortment of colors available for students to draw with. This will allow students the creative freedom to choose their media and to experience more flexible seating. Try to have the stations set up prior to students entering the classroom for ease of management; otherwise, you should set up stations while students are playing “Ten Times Two” or “The Elaboration Game.”

Day 2 Introduction

  • Review Gibson’s work with students (use the DAM link above to view images of Gibson’s art and the traditional parfleche). Ask questions like “What do you remember about this piece? What do you notice about it? What are some similarities or differences you see between Gibson’s sculpture and the traditional parfleche?”

Day 2 Artmaking

  • Students will retrieve their art from the previous day.
  • Students will continue adding color and detail to their large papers.


  • Students can write artist statements about their art, explaining what they made, how they made it, and why they made it. Students should share what they thought about when changing their small sketches into large drawings, and how the artwork reveals something about their identities.
  • Students who finish early can assist other students who work more slowly, or who are struggling with the project.
  • Once all students are finished (time permitting), have all students lay their thumbnail sketch next to their large finished work on their work area. Students can engage in a gallery walk where they slowly walk around and view everyone’s art.

○ You can make this a silent activity where students focus on observation only, or you can make it an activity where students can openly discuss things with partners as they walk around.

○ You can also give students sticky notes and allow them to attach written feedback to pieces that inspire them.


Sketch paper for planning and/or student sketchbooks, if used in art class

Pencils and colored pencils



Traceable shapes

Index cards (for thumbnail sketches)

Large paper (12” x 18” or larger)

Tempera paint


Paint palettes

Paper towels


Oil pastels


Sticky notes


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Invent and Discover to Create
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
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.