Why on earth is clay so important in the classroom…..?
Ceramics embodies all the skills needed to be an accomplished artist. There is a sense of alchemy in a material that is of the earth, it cannot be considered anything other than mud until it has been subjected to each of the four elements, Earth, Air, Water and Fire. What other discipline encompasses these processes with which to express an idea, an opinion, a meaning?
The medium of clay is often spoken of in terms of “pottery evening classes” or the “pot” was made at school that “exploded” in the kiln. In art circles it belongs in the lower echelons of status and branded “craft”. In fact most of our experiences of clay probably fit into that very category. Even when Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize with gritty modern scenes painted onto classic hand built vases, the establishment applauded Perry’s parody of the traditional material used. They enjoyed poking fun at “craft”. I’m afraid clay is seriously out of fashion, but does that mean we should not touch it?
If we analyse the impact of science and technology, politics and their effect on how we live our lives it is easy to identify the reasons for its low status. Like kids who will no longer give their time to be taught the game of cricket, learning the true value of working with this material takes time. Too often in schools, the traditional and formal skills are left behind and replaced by cut and paste tricks inspired by TV shows designed to give kids ideas for a rainy day. To truly appreciate a game like cricket, one has to display all the personal qualities that are valuable in life. Perseverance: without which a talent cannot be developed and nurtured step by step. Humility: to realize that no matter what is achieved, without practice and hard work, humiliation is just around the corner. Without failure we cannot have success when working with clay, it is a process that must be experienced.
If one is to embrace this addictive medium it requires an apprenticeship and many of the foundations can be laid in the classroom that teach the young mind so much more than craft. In learning how to transform ideas into clay as an art form, I maintain that it is demonstrably possible, as long as it is seen in the right context.
It has been said before that ceramics is the bridge between painting and sculpture, yet I believe it to be so much more than that. The technical challenges that go hand in hand with aesthetic consideration are unique to the medium. Each test, each experiment that becomes a symbol of hope that something has been achieved that has never been seen before, is realized in the moment that the kiln door is opened. That moment can make your day, your week, your year yet that moment can also destroy your belief in a particular direction. It can make you realize that you made a silly, fundamental error. But the perseverance in you makes you go again, more determined than before. This is learning by experience and the depth of that experience can only be tested over time.
Young people I have worked with have experienced these emotions, but it fills them with a determination to get to the promised land. They feel the failures but without them they could not understand the value of what they achieve by using what they learn to drive them on. When this happens, I suddenly get drawn into conversations with other teachers about how much an individual has improved, how focused and determined they have become.
The joy of serendipity, “the happy accident needs to be repeated and controlled” (Chris Jenkins). It makes the individual determined to push themselves. They want to achieve something. It does not matter what that something is but it is amazing to see and it is why we educate. Students should be “urged to recognize the value of mistakes as an important learning tool, and to develop critical thinking skills, enabling them to identify both strengths and weaknesses in their own work and the work of others”.
Deborah A Rockman
Unfortunately practicing ceramics both individually and in schools has overheads and those in charge of budgets are all too eager to find that money saving quick fix. Kilns get filtered away and clay replaced with plasticine and papier-mache, many valuable skills can be learned from these materials but they are not the culmination of a real process that encompasses a multitude of skills and qualities.
Many teaching this vital subject - unless their degree has been specifically focused on ceramics – lack the specialist knowledge needed to set up and run ceramics within a busy art department. This situation is unlikely to improve with degree courses closing up and down the country. Many are willing, but finding the time to set up and learn new disciplines within the academic year and the straight jacket culture of box ticking takes an extraordinary commitment.
I hope these few words can help to encourage educators that with resourcefulness and a simple kiln, young minds can be developed into working minds and lives can be changed forever.
There are many pre-conceptions about clay that involve parents or grandparents having attended night classes where “plant pots”, “ashtrays” and “pen holders” were made. Disasters struck when pots “exploded” in the kiln, dashing hours of work, squashing all the initial enthusiasm of the wonderful processes. This text will furnish teachers and students alike with:
• Ideas needed to convert sketchbook sources into outcomes in clay.
• Technical advice that shows that most disasters can be easily avoided.
• It will re-establish clay as a genuine option in the classroom and beyond.
"Moments of the past may gain a new extraordinary significance. Many of the historical experiences, which seem to be of no more value for life and had fallen into oblivion for years, suddenly come back to the surface"
“Get them drawing into the clay”
Beginning my first teaching job on Merseyside was a daunting prospect in 1996, a new post at the start of a career. I was appointed to develop ceramics in a two man department in a growing school. Yes, I had a Fine Art Degree specializing in Ceramics and reasonable subject knowledge to take into the classroom. But how could that specialized knowledge be transferred to young people in the classroom?
It was at this point I turned to Jim Robison, my mentor, friend and long suffering degree tutor, to ask where to begin in the classroom with clay. The answer was straight forward, (another key quality of good teaching):
“Get them drawing into the clay” was the reply.
In an uncomplicated sense this is the big part of developing source material into clay outcomes. Whatever is in the sketchbook can be transferred as an image in clay, regardless of the form or structure it is applied to. As with any media students work with in the classroom, the quality of the source material is the key to the quality of any ceramic outcome. Do not expect clay to solve the age-old issues of lack of commitment that is found amongst any medium and is inherent in certain students. A half-hearted response in clay will yield the usual half-baked outcome.
Teaching Philosophy at Examination Level *
Like any other project theme in an exciting art classroom, it is good practice to follow a thorough program of study through observational drawing, photography, painting, experimentation, collage etc. All this with a thorough grounding in the study of other artists’ styles and contexts should give the student lots to work with when planning the final outcome in clay. The nature of the source material can be much the same as the starting points that would be used to develop any media.
The interesting revelation is that many experimental techniques employed in the creative sketchbook usually translate perfectly into clay.
• Silk screen printing,
• resist techniques,
are all transferable to the clay surface with the use of a few underglazes and oxides without having to worry too much about the elephant in the room; glazing!
Colour is an element that can be applied as the surface is developed resulting in much more subtle finishing than dipping into a thick opaque glaze that generally covers the fine textures that adorn surfaces. In the beginners' classroom, spraying equipment and ingredients are often unavailable but with a few body stains, underglazes, decorative slips and oxides, colour can be applied to complement form, surface and texture.
“How many potters and students spend hours building this beautiful form and working on texture and are full of excitement and hope only to throw a glaze over it in a matter of minutes to ruin their hard work.”
Jim Robison – Glaze course, Holmfirth 2004.
This is an issue I always keep in mind. It is so easy to lose a student if they have spent hours on a piece only for it to explode in the kiln or the subtleties lost to a thick brown shiny glaze. A student needs lots of help, support and discussion with their first few pieces of clay work and with the proper grounding they can become every teachers’ dream: the independent student!
For me, this planning involves some main areas to consider: