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Functional Japanese Garden Lanterns: A Clay Lesson for High School Art Classes

written by: thatbluegirl • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 2/21/2014

Students will design a functional Japanese garden lantern out of clay which will reflect a particular mood of choice. Your students will love this Zen style of art!

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    Whatever the tasks, do them slowly with ease, in mindfulness. Don't do any tasks in order to get them over with. Resolve to do each Japanese Lantern in Golden Gate Park by Pete Bobb from Wikimedia Commons job in a relaxed way, with all your attention.

    -Thich Nhat Hanh

    This is a clay lesson that your high school students will find most unique and intriguing to complete, because they will learn about Japanese history and culture at its finest.

    Design Requirements:

    • Students will pick a style of garden lantern from four styles: buried, pedestal, small/set, snow viewing.
    • Japanese gardens rely on Zen principles: their lantern will rely on a mood of their choice. The moods can be Excitement, Happiness, Sadness, Japanese Lantern Student Example 1 Love, Somberness, etc.
    • The design and glaze of the Japanese garden lantern should reflect the mood.
    • Lantern must have a place to insert a tea light candle.
    • Lantern should contain an element of Japanese style.
    • Lantern must have one Japanese symbol (relating to the mood) carved into one side for light to shine through (see resources section for Japanese symbol dictionary).

    Students will learn about Japanese Zen gardens and Japanese garden lanterns. Before starting work with clay, they should sketch lantern ideas into their sketchbooks and create a finalized drawing of what they'd like to create. Sketches are important to work out potential problems and give students a solid foundation to build on. The color, symbol, and designs of their lantern should reflect a certain mood in the way that Japanese Zen Gardens depicted a particular feeling or mood.

    Some background on Zen Gardens to share with students:Japanese Lantern Student Example 2 

    He who plants a garden, plants happiness.

    -Chinese Proverb

    The Japanese or Zen style of gardening has existed for many centuries, becoming prominent after Buddhists monks began using the gardens to illustrate and teach the principles of their religion. Gardens were not just for decoration but to provide a place to work, relax, and to better understand the Zen philosophy.

    These gardens are considered "dry-landscape" in that the major components are sand, soil, rocks, and/or other natural or "earth" Japanese Lantern Student Example 3 elements. There is very little plant life or water although some elements like sand are often used to represent water. Everything in the garden has special meaning and is put into place with a purpose. Careful consideration is taken for their placement in order to create a particular environment or atmosphere. The arrangement of elements will also determine the mood of the garden which can vary from peaceful to exciting. There is a great deal of symbolism involved as well. Major symbolic components of the garden: rock, gravel, plants & architectural elements.

    Rocks: can stand for sky, earth, or even an animal depending on how they are used within a garden and what shape/texture/size they are. Rocks are a major component of Zen gardens.

    Gravel: (or sand) is used frequently to depict movement or energy and also depending on its arrangement is used to represent water.

    Plants: although minimal, help accent and bring emotion to a garden. For example: a blue plant can help convey a feeling of Japanese Lantern Student Example 4 peacefulness or calm.

    Architecture: Lanterns, paths, and bridges are added to compliment and complete the garden.

    Lantern Background

    Stone lanterns have a long history with Japanese Gardens as well. Japanese tea ceremonies have always been considered a special event in the Japanese culture. Since these ceremonies were held during night or evening hours, stone lanterns were used in the gardens and temples to help guide guests to the tea rooms with their light. Today, stone and even wood lanterns are preferred over metal lanterns for their earthy/natural qualities.

    Japanese garden lanterns can be classified into 4 basic categories: Japanese Lantern Student Example 5 

    • pedestal lanterns
    • buried lanterns
    • small, set lantern
    • snow-viewing lanterns


    Most of this project can be completed using clay slab building. It is important that students roll out slabs of uniform thickness. Allowing clay to dry to the leather hard stage will make it easier to join walls or carve symbols. Trying to join clay that is too wet will result in bowed walls. Students may want to use under-glaze to give their lanterns a stone or natural quality or use Japanese Lantern Student Example 6 glaze to help accurately reflect their mood. When students carve out the symbols, they should keep in mind the fact that clay shrinks when it dries and is fired. Symbols that are too small may not read correctly or allow light to pass through.

    Lesson Resources:

    Zen Garden Photographs

    Lantern Images

    Information about Zen Gardens

    Japanese Symbols DictionaryJapanese Lantern Student Example 7 

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