Try your hand at colorful code-making as students at Black Mountain College did.

Appropriate for: Creative minds age 6 + up

A rebus is a word puzzle. Pictures of things that sound the same as syllables or letters in the words are combined with words to create one-of-a-kind messages or stories. For example: Re +  bus.png.

The rebus message project is inspired by Lorna Blaine Halper’s letter to her parents from the ICA exhibition Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957. In her letter, Halper uses familiar symbols and pictures she has drawn to keep in touch with her family. Deciphering Halper’s letter is not so easy! For more inspiration, take a peek at the rebus letter examples below created by artists visiting the ICA then create your own rebus messages. Or create rebus stories and poems!

Materials Needed

(Use what you have on hand already.)

  • Paper (unlined or lined papers of all kinds are fine!) including practice paper
  • Pencils and erasers
  • Drawing tools and coloring materials (crayons, color pencils, markers, pens, gel pens, etc.)
  • Envelopes and stamps (to mail your rebus message!)


  1. Using practice paper and a pencil, write out in words what you want your message to say.
  2. Then brainstorm the ways you can change some of the words in your message using symbols and pictures. (Hint: Words like “and” already have a symbol to represent them:  “&.”  Words like “the” or “at” can be written out in letters. There’s no “wrong” way to create a rebus message, you can decide!)
  3. Once your first copy is complete, work using another piece of paper to turn your message into a rebus! (You may also choose to write a letter, story, poem, or sign using the rebus style.)  For example, your parent might create this sign:

    bee.png  + brave and bee.png  + have!

  4. OPTIONAL: Use an envelope and a stamp to mail your letter if you choose. Invite the person to whom you send your rebus message to create a rebus response message and mail it to you.

Come and see the artworks that inspired the rebus letter project in the exhibition Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, on view at the ICA through January 24, 2016.

Join us the last Saturday of every month (except December) for Play Dates, when kids activities from art-making to film screenings to dance demos fill the ICA. Admission is FREE for up to 2 adults per family when accompanied by children ages 12 and under. Youth 17 and under are always admitted free to the ICA. 

This project was created by ICA Family Programs Coordinator Kathleen Lomatoski, with support from Julia Cseko, Bianca Marrinucci, and Cathy McLaurin.

© 2015 Department of Education, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston