Lesson Plans MMoCA Collects

Hollis Sigler: A Moment When My Life Changed

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Sample image
Sample image
Sample image


This lesson combines art and creative writing. Students will look at Hollis Sigler's You Worry About Its Success and imagine the incident "behind the scenes." Based on a dramatic moment in their own lives when things changed, each student will create a visual narrative and title that tells a story primarily with symbols.


Students will learn to "read" and recognize symbols in a work of art.

Students will analyze the composition of this picture and understand how choices made by Hollis Sigler contribute to the storytelling process.

Students will remember a dramatic moment or "time when everything changed" in their own lives. Using Sigler's style as a model, each student will plan and execute a composition that successfully tells a story, primarily with symbols.


Discuss Hollis Sigler and her work with students. Sigler's work deals with moments of extreme emotions and times when an event causes life to change. Explain that her work was often biographical, but that she intended to connect with the lives of women in general. Sigler used objects, but rarely people, to tell her stories. Such objects are called symbols. Sigler used bright, strong colors in expressive rather than purely realistic ways. Often her scenes look a little like stage sets where action is about to happen. Some are actually surrounded by a proscenium, or stage front, complete with curtains. Words/titles are sometimes, but not always, written on the work. These words are often mysterious or enigmatic, suggesting–but not revealing–the theme of the art work. Students will discuss the use of symbols, then choose personal memories of great emotion or a time when the course of their lives changed. Using symbols, each student will create a personal piece of art in the style of Hollis Sigler.


  1. Show You Worry About Its Success to students. Ask basic questions such as: What time of day is it? What do you think is going to happen here, or what has already happened? Are the colors and lighting strong or soft and gentle? How do these colors affect how you imagine this story? Where is the person witnessing this scene? Where are the characters of this scene? Do the trees have a purpose? Is there more than one explanation for this drama? How does the title change your perception? Make up a story about this picture. Guide the discussion with more questions if students don't come up with creative dialogue about the image.
  2. Ask students to remember a time in their own lives when everything seemed to change: death of a family member or pet, winning a prize, a strong storm, a family move or job change, or a divorce. Ask students to retain those memories.
  3. Discuss what a symbol is. Ask students to brainstorm a list of pop-culture symbols and what they mean: a heart for love, a gun for violence, a peace sign for peace, a blinking light bulb over a cartoon head for a good idea.
  4. Discuss the fact that Sigler arranged this scene or composition in a purposeful way. She chose the lighting and trees to frame the center of the action. She chose colors to intensify emotion. Discuss the idea that color can make a viewer feel peaceful or active and that colors are often used as a trick to catch and hold the viewer's attention. In this picture, the darkness surrounding the center creates a mood. Lastly, Sigler changes the sizes of objects, depending on their importance. Let students analyze the composition for details.
  5. Remind students that they will be telling stories about people without people. They will be using symbols and objects to suggest the plot. Each will start a preliminary sketch of the life-altering moment in pencil, sketching lightly so changes can easily be made. Help students in their use of scale, color, and framing. Remind them to work large, as they will be using wax and oil crayons, which have broad tips. The whole space needs to be considered, not just the center of the action. Remind them that they need to take time and draw details carefully, so that viewers will recognize important objects and clues. Point out again the concept of a proscenium and curtains as a framing device.
  6. Since a piece of art needs to stand on its own and be understood, students next trade drawings with a friend to see if the partner can "read" the story and identify the drawn objects. Remind students that constructive comments are not criticisms but a way to be a more successful storyteller. Students need to realize that stories and images that are clear in their heads may not be clear to others. Encourage revisions as necessary.
  7. When students feel successful with their images, encourage the development of short titles or captions that suggest but do not completely explain the stories. Students then re-sketch their compositions as lightly as possible. Remind them that crayons cover light marks more thoroughly than dark ones.
  8. Students color in their drawings, filling the whole space completely with solid, strong coloring.

    Note: This lesson would be an excellent tool for a child exploring a traumatic event with a teacher, counselor, or therapist. Much of Hollis Sigler's work deals with her struggle with breast cancer.


Google search

Library search for books on the artist's work

"Issue books" in school libraries that deal with divorce, the loss of a family member, with health issues, or with issues of differences.

Examples of symbols pulled from pop culture, such as ads and cartoons.

Curriculum Connections

Art–composition and symbolism
Language arts–creative writing
Art therapy–working through traumatic events


Suitable for all levels, this lesson was piloted with fourth graders.



Variety of drawing media: oil crayons, wax crayons, colored pencils. Drawings could become oil or acrylic paintings with older students. Students in photo classes could stage, light, and photograph their solutions.

Examples of symbols from everyday life: a heart for love, cartoon light bulb for a bright idea, men-and-women symbols from rest-room doors. (We had a worksheet with about 20 common symbols available for discussion.)


the front frame or plane of a stage that separates the stage from the audience and frames the action on the stage

something that stands for or represents another thing or abstract idea (such as peace, love, or strength)

strong feeling, or state of consciousness filled with strong feeling

a story of one's life told by oneself

full of meaning or expression


This lesson meets the following Wisconsin Model Academic Standards:


C: Students in Wisconsin will design and produce quality original images, such as paintings, sculptures, designed objects, photographs, graphic designed objects, photographs, graphic designs, videos, and computer images. (Performance Standards: C.4.1, C.4.6,)

E: Students in Wisconsin will produce quality images that effectively communicate and express ideas using varied media, techniques, and processes. (Performance Standards: E.4.1, E.4.5)

G: Students in Wisconsin will interpret visual experiences, such as artwork, designed objects, architecture, movies, television, and multimedia images using a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas. (Performance Standards: G.4.1, G.4.2, G.4.3, G.4.4)

I: Students in Wisconsin will use their senses and emotions through art and design to develop their minds and to improve social relationships. (Performance Standards: I.4.2, I.4.3, I.4.6)

L.4.6 Understand that artists develop a personal style that reflects who they are.

English Language Arts

B.4.1: Create or produce writing to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes. Write expressive pieces in response to life experiences employing descriptive detail and personal voice.

C.4.1: Orally communicate information, opinions, and ideas effectively to different audiences for a variety of purposes. Present autobiographical or fictional stories that recount events effectively.


Hollis Sigler, You Worry About Its Success, 1987. oil on canvas, 65 1/2 x 89 1/2. Collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Purchase, through funds bequested by Elizabeth Harris. 1987.04 © Estate of Hollis Sigler.

Any level; piloted for 4th grade

Art, language arts, art therapy