What is your story?

3D Paper Cut Out Scene Nicho Box

Grades K–5
Painting by Carmen Lomas Garza of a posada


Students will learn about Cesar Chavez and his community work. Students will learn about Nicho boxes and create a 3D scene telling a story. Students will also learn about artist Carmen Lomas Garza and Xavier Viramontes. 

Artmaking Techniques

  • Sketching several symbols that tell a story
  • Building with papier mache skills
  • Painting techniques

Lesson Overview

Students will learn about Cesar Chavez and his work as a civil rights leader along with learning about the United Farm Workers Union. Focus will be primarily on the farmworkers during that time period and their experiences. Students will create 3D paper scenes into nicho boxes to tell their own family story after interviewing parents. The box will be filled with students created symbols representing what is important to them and showing their family story. This lesson will fit in with our current Language Arts Biography Unit.

Time needed: 8-10 class periods (45-60 min each)

Background needed

About the artists Carmen Lomas Garza and Xavier Viramontes. 

Nicho Box history 

Carmen Lomas Garza is a Chicana narrative artist who creates images about the everyday events in the lives of Mexican Americans based on her memories and experiences in Texas and California. She is well known for her paintings, ofrendas and for her papel picado work inspired by her Mexican-American heritage.

Xavier Viramontes created "Boycott Grapes, Support the United Farm Workers Union" the year César Chávez initiated a new grape boycott in response to the Teamsters’ violent intervention in disputes between the UFW and California growers. Viramontes was aware of the Teamsters’ brutal tactics, which likely informed his imagery of a formidable Aztec warrior squeezing grapes that spew blood instead of juice. The artist suggested that the UFW sell the poster to support the boycott. While the union initially believed the blood symbolism was too graphic, they began selling the print via mail order through "El Malcriado," the UFW newspaper.

Nicho boxes are small 3D decorative boxes that originated from the church retablo and are like a portable shrine for an important figure or loved one. 

Essential Questions

  • What is Cesar Chavez best known for?
  • What is the importance of the United Farm Workers Union?
  • What are the symbols that represent this story?
  • Why are these symbols important?
  • How is color scheme used to represent a person’s identity/personality?


  • Students will learn about Nicho boxes.
  • Students will learn about the artist Carmen Lomas Garza and Xavier Viramontes.
  • Students will think about what is going on in the works of art presented.
  • Students will discover what is an important figure or cause to them from this unit? 
  • Students will learn different ways to sculpt symbols using air drying clay and constructing a 3D paper scene.
  • Students will think about symbols that tell us their story and learn how to sculpt these symbols using modeling clay. 

Key Vocabulary

  • Symbols
  • Representation
  • Culture
  • History
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Personality
  • Beliefs
  • Qualities
  • Characteristics

Standard Connections

Common Core Standards

  • VA:CR1.1.3
  • VA:CR2.2.3
  • VA:CR2.3.3

Materials-In the classroom

  • Power point presentation on artist work and storybook of Carmen Lomas Garza and work of Xavier Viramontes along with examples of Nicho boxes.
  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Small box like a show box
  • Colorful construction paper and decorative paper
  • Model magic air drying clay
  • Glue 
  • Several size paint brushes
  • Scissors
  • Acrylic paint and or markers
  • Mixing palette
  • Paper towels

Works of Art

Carmen Lomas Garza, Las Posadas and Children's Books Family Pictures/Cuadros de familia, In My Family/ En mi familia, and Magic Windows/Ventanas Magicas

Xavier Viramontes, Untitled (Boycott Grapes)

Lesson Steps

Day 1. View and discuss the works of art:

Introduce the work of Carmen Lomas Garza and reading from her book, Xavier Viramontes and Nicho boxes.

Use the following questions to guide a VTS class discussion while viewing the artist’s works of art:

  • What do you see in this painting? / What is going on in this painting?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you tell me about this painting?

Continue to ask these questions for each painting and artist introduced.

Discuss what symbols are, and ask students why and how they are used to communicate. 

  • Ask students to discuss and identify the symbols that they see in these works of art. 
  • Have students write what they know about an important issue and about the farm workers movement and think about someone that they know or read about that did something important for a change. 

Day 2. Discuss and share about a person that they know or in history that did something to help change something within their group:

  • Give students time to share and write about it. 
  • Have students discuss story and the symbols they can use to express their story within their group. 
  • Have students to draw several sketches of their story using symbols. 

Day 3. Have students begin building their 3D Nicho box story 

  • Have students do a 5-minute exercise where they sketch their 3D story and their Nicho box shape
  • Demonstrate a step by step lesson on various ways to build the outside of the Nicho box 
  • Show different techniques and ways to create the inside 3D paper cut out scene showing them placement of foreground, middle ground and background.  
  • Have students continue to build their outside boarder of their Nicho box 
  • Have the power point with Nicho boxes running in the background to inspire the students. 

Day 4: Finish Building Nicho box frame

  • Begin with discussing what has worked or what hasn’t worked in building their Nicho box frame structure, allow time for students to share. This helps give everyone an idea on how to make the building process easier and more helpful.
  • Have students continue to build their Nicho box frame.

Day 5: Making layers within the box 

  • Begin having students share their Nicho box so far.
  • show students techniques to work on the inside of the box background scene using markers and colorful paper.

Day 6: Work on middle ground and foreground

  • Begin demonstrating how to make their Nicho box scene look 3Dimentional by adding a middle ground and foreground using colorful paper.
  • Have students work on middle ground and foreground for the remainder of the class. 

Day 7: Working on symbols with air drying clay

  • Begin by having the students look back at their symbols sketch sheet
  • Next have students discuss (5-10 min) in a small group or with a partner the story they are telling us in their tree and whether the symbols help tell that story. 
  • Show different ways that model magic air drying clay can be used to create a symbol.
  • Have students explore and practice with the clay and begin sculpting their mini symbols to decorate the outside of the Nicho box.
  • Allow time for students to sculpt mini symbols out of the clay and leave to dry for the following class. 

Day 8. Have students paint clay symbols and box: 

  • Begin by showing students different painting techniques using a small brush to paint their clay objects and add details around their box.
  • Set up brushes, paint, cup of water and paper towels.
  • Allow students remainder of the class to paint clay objects and add paint details to their Nicho box.

Day 9. Have students glue clay symbols and Share final art

  • Have students arrange and glue their clay symbols onto the Nicho box 
  • Have students volunteer to show & discuss their final work of art to their class and along with their written piece about their work of art. 
  • Have students give feedback and do any final adjustments. 

Guiding Questions for students while talking about their artwork:

  • What is the title of your work?
  • What is your story?
  • What are your symbols and what is the meaning behind them?
  • Describe the steps of how your work was made.
  • Why did you choose those symbols?
  • What message do you hope to tell others about yourself through your work?

Thanks to the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Polk Bros Foundation and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation for supporting the development of this lesson.