Imagination, hard work turn 3,000 plastic straws into amazing lion head

Student’s persistence pays off

Junior Grace Kane poses with her work of art, now on display in a school showcase

Over his more than 30 years of teaching art, Don Crawford has seen incredible pieces produced by his students. But a three-dimensional lion head created by 17-year-old Grace Kane took his breath away.

“It is just incredible,” Crawford said. “When she told me what she had in mind, I tried to talk her out of it. It was so ambitious, she has a 4.3 grade-point average and is taking some hard courses. I figured it would be too much.”

Grace wasn’t easily discouraged. She not only proceeded with her idea to build a lion head — out of thousands of straws — but she continued even when the project became more difficult than she expected. After she completed the face of the lion, her father asked her to stop.

“He thought I could cut it off and mount it, but I was determined to finish it,” said the junior.

For two months, approximately two hours each evening and countless time on weekends, Grace worked on her lion.

Grace Kane credits much of her artistic bent to her grandmother, Mary Ellen Courtade (courtesy photo)

A Painstaking Process

The inspiration came from artists who mold together colored pencils to create carvings, she said.

“I saw vases being made out of colored pencils. I looked at those vases and thought it would be interesting to do something with colored pencils,” Grace said. “I began to look at other sculptures made of colored pencils and saw a ton of 3-D ones that really inspired me, like faces and animals.

“When I decided I wanted to make a lion’s head I quickly realized using straws would be much easier. Straws would have the same effect that colored pencils would but easier to cut.”

Her project started with an order of 3,000 plastic straws, which she first spray-painted in shades of brown, yellow and orange. Then she carefully sliced some of them in two and others into shreds to give her a variety of textures.

Grace said her family’s table was nearly constantly covered with plastic shards. “One time the cat rolled in them and it was a real mess to clean her up,” said Grace. “And I know that I will eventually have to buy my mother a new table. I promised.”

After setting out the prepared straws and the styrofoam mannequin head, which served as her base, Grace would surround herself with music on one side and a computer on the other, constantly looking for pictures or videos of lions to inspire her and guide her work.

“She was never content,” said Crawford. “She was always looking for pictures of lions and inspiration; she worked from multiple videos and still shots. The final project came from her imagination. It is unbelievable how she did it.”

Grace found it particularly challenging  to get the right dimensions.

“First I had this part too narrow and had to take it back apart,” she said, pointing to the distinct jawlines of the lion’s face. “And then when I finished the eyes, I could see that they were too close together and had to redo them too.”

Another change came after she noticed that she had too much brown on the mane. But finally she was pleased with the project and turned it in for grading.

“I don’t generally use a rubric to grade art,” said Crawford. “I never want to discourage someone who has followed the directions of the assignment, found their inspiration and worked hard on a project.

“Art is very subjective, but nobody could look at this,” he said, pointing to the finished lion head, “and not grade it with the highest grade.”

Grace Kane turned thousands of plastic straws into this impressive lion’s head

From the Heart and the Family

Grace, who has taken an art class every semester since entering middle school, said that she does not plan to pursue a career in art, but credits her family genes for any talent and enthusiasm for art.

Her family’s home is filled with stained glass pieces made by her paternal grandfather, whose wife was also an accomplished sewer, according to Grace. But her maternal grandmother, Mary Ellen Courtade, has really inspired her.

“She had seven children, when her husband died and she married someone with seven more children,” said Grace. “Then after raising 14 children, she went back to get a degree in art.” Her grandmother loved all art, but Grace was drawn to her work on animal portraits and paintings.

A couple of years ago her grandma, who lives in Sparta, lost the use of her right hand after a stroke. Today, she keeps up her art with her left hand. Said Grace, “She still does incredible stuff.”

Janice Holst
Janice Holst has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and is thrilled to spend some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio

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