Charcoal Drawings

Inspired by the work of Minnesota artist James D. Autio

Grade Level:Grades 6–8
Time Required:Two to four 55-minute class periods
Lesson Overview: Students will explore the art of Minnesota Ojibwe artist James D. Autio and create unique charcoal drawings of animals on repurposed grocery bags.

This lesson was designed by James D. Autio for middle-school students. You can adapt the ideas to suit your classroom needs.

Lesson Objectives
Students will be able to observe, identify, and describe characteristics of various artworks created by James D. Autio, a Minnesota Ojibwe artist.

Students will be able to create unique charcoal drawings of animals on repurposed grocery bags inspired by Autio’s art and Ojibwe doodem (family clan) or spiritual symbols.

Students will become familiar with the idea that certain animals are important to Ojibwe people.

Students will become familiar with ledger art.


    • Images of art by James D. Autio Download PDF
    • Promethean Board or projector to project images or printed reproductions of Autio’s work included in this lesson
    • Examples of Ojibwe animal clan or spiritual symbols (student can research online or use print resources)
    • Charcoal or similar dry medium
    • Gesso or acrylic paint
    • Grocery bags (Autio uses mostly Cub Foods bags)
    • on-acidic tape or bookbinder glue
    • Optional literature resource for teacher or students: Jacobson, Mark Anthony. Ojibway Clans (Animal Totems and Spirits), Birchbark Books, 2012. (ISBN: 9781554762903)
Visual Art Standards>
Lesson Steps
Introduce the lesson by telling students a little bit about the artist. An Ojibwe of the Owaazisii (Bullhead) clan who lives in Minneapolis, James Autio is a poet and visual artist. He uses a lot of different media to make art: acrylic paints, charcoal and pencil, print- making, digital video, and photography. He also makes Ojibwe art, including pipes.
1. Explain Ojibwe doodem system
(family clan with animal symbol) and discuss students’ family back- grounds and cultures. (30 minutes)

Before or during the first lesson, ask students to research Ojibwe clan animals. Discuss their findings.

Project Autio’s 2017 acrylic on particle board painting, Beshwaji’awesiinh, while discussing Ojibwe clan animals (p. 63).

As in many Native cultures, the Ojibwe have a clan system (doodem). A long time ago, this system provided a fair way to help the people govern. Every clan was named after an important animal or animal family. The clan animal had a role that related to decision making and the greater good of the whole community. The original seven clans were the Crane, Loon, Bear, Deer, Bird, Marten, and Bullhead (Fish) clans. Over time and depending on the geography of nations, differences evolved in clan names, and sub-clans with other animals developed.

Introduce students to the Ojibwe names for the original doodem clans:

    Ajijaak: Ah jee jahk = Crane
    Maang: Mahng k = Loon
    Awaazisii: Ah WAH si see = Bullhead Bineshiinh: Bee NAY shee = Bird
    Makwa: Muh kwuh = Bear
    Waabizheshi: WAH bee shay shi = Marten Waawaashkeshi: Wah wash kay shi = Deer

Tell students that these and other animals are important to Autio’s Ojibwe culture and art. Ask students to share something important about their family background and culture.

2. Discuss images by Autio.(20–30 minutes)

Explain to students that they will be making drawings (with painted additions) on grocery bags of an animal that is important to them, their families, or cultures, and is inspired by Autio’s artworks. Encourage them to think about what aspects of Autio’s work will inspire their animal drawings. How will their own backgrounds and cultures inform their artwork?

Select two to four images of animals on grocery bags by Autio that will prompt your students to look and talk. The images also include a portrait; this example is useful to include if you would like students to consider drawing humans. Project and facilitate a discussion about each image by encouraging students to look closely and describe what they see. Ask: What do you see? What else? What do you notice about the way Autio drew and/or painted this artwork? What about this artwork might inspire the drawing you will be making? What do you wonder about this image?

At the end of the discussion invite students to look at the other images by Autio included with this lesson. Ask them to come to the next class with an animal in mind for their drawing.

3. Discuss the Native art tradition of repurposing ledger papers and the ledger’s connection to Autio’s reuse of Cub Foods bags.

Ledger art refers to narrative drawings made by Plains Native artists with pencil, ink, and watercolor on pages of old ledger or account books, primarily from the 1860s to the 1920s. Traditionally, artists had painted on bison hides. However, as the U.S. federal government largely eradicated bison and destroyed traditional ways of life for Native people, artists began painting and drawing on paper, canvas, and muslin. Autio considers repurposed grocery bags to be a modern manifestation of these practices.

4. Art making
Sketch ideas for Ojibwe doodem, or spiritual symbols, or create a family symbol based on an animal or the natural environment. (20 minutes)

Cut open grocery bags, remove bottom portions, and clean up edges. Decide how large a final sheet is needed, and tape or glue sheets together to make a large work surface. (40 minutes)

Transfer sketch loosely onto the larger grocery bag sheet. (10 minutes)

Work large drawing into a final form using charcoal, supplemented with chalk, pastels, gesso, etc., mostly for highlights or small touches. (30–60 minutes)

Cleanup (10 minutes)

5. Discussion
Invite students to share their drawings and talk about the animals (or other images) they depicted and other artistic choices they made.

James D. Autio artworks

Beshwaji’awesiinh, 2017, acrylic on particle board (example of Ojibwe doodem—animal clan symbols)
Ganawaabi / She Watches, 2017, ink and gesso on paper
You Are Not Alone, 2017, ink and charcoal on Cub Foods bags
Disturbed Animal Series: Two Crows, 2013, charcoal and conté on Cub Foods bags
Disturbed Animal Series: Waabooz, 2013, charcoal and gesso on Cub Foods bags
Juicy Fruit, 2015, charcoal and gesso on Cub Foods bags
Disturbed Animal Series: Waabooz Ikwe, 2016, charcoal and gesso on
Cub Foods bags
Disturbed Animal Series: The Shmioux, 2014, charcoal and pastel on Cub Foods bags
Disturbed Animal Series: Ma’iingan, 2013, charcoal, chalk, acrylic, and gesso on Cub Foods bags