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Summer Learning 8: Clay Is Fun/Clay Is Hard

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Thomas A. Edison

I spent most of my summer getting dirty and looking like this:

And it was glorious! I would spend the early morning hours getting stuff done around the house, writing, or reading. Around 9am I would change into these clay clothes and go on up to the pottery studio, not to be seen for at least a few hours. The studio is nothing more than half of my husband’s former woodshop on the top floor of one of the outbuildings on our small farm.

It’s a primitive space. There’s no running water and no heat. Clean up happens with a garden hose in a double wash tub sink, where I usually end up getting as wet as the stuff I’m washing.

Clean up station

There’s a table saw in the middle of the space. And a drill press in the corner.

But there are two giant windows that make me feel as if I were outside. A fan to move air. And a peaceful view of part of the back yard, which I especially love during a storm.

There’s also an old iHome clock radio tuned to WUMB Boston (folk radio – where you’re never more than an hour away from a Richard Thompson song – ha!) on which the volume button no longer turns and is permanently set to kind of loud, but not too loud.

Lastly, the space is graced with and blessed by St. Samuel, a painting on glass by friend and former student, Sam Odysseus Wolken. St. Samuel is my constant companion in the clay studio, and keeps a watchful eye over my work.

St. Samuel by Sam Odysseus Wolken

I opened the studio for this summer after our return from Philadelphia, around July 2. Because I only use this great space during the summer, I take the first couple of weeks to refresh the muscle memory of wheel work. Consequently, I would go to the studio each day with pottery goals in mind. I would usually throw a few small bowls to warm up. I used Indonesian Batik stamps (Brimfield) and 3D printed peace dove cutter/stampers to imprint the first pieces.

First work warm ups

Once I got my pottery groove back, my first goal was to throw decent cylinders, focusing on pulling up the sides. Once I could do that again, I focused on collaring and pushing out the sides to make curvy vessels.

Embracing the curves

The next goal was to throw plates. This is a big challenge for me. I use videos on YouTube to teach myself. I must have referred to six different videos before finding one that helped. I made a bunch of small plates. I couldn’t seem to master the large plate, but I had other goals I wanted to accomplish.

Small plates

At this time, about a month into summer clay work, I was driven to design a cutter/stamper to imprint the plates and double as a cutter/tracer for slab clay cut outs. I had done this last year with 3D printing tracer/cutters inspired by Picasso’s peace doves.

Peace doves made with 3D printed stamper/cutters

This year, I took inspiration from our last remaining peacock, Lapis Lazuli, the sole survivor of the four peafowl we have had on our little farm over the past several years. I took to Autodesk Sketchbook on my iPad to noodle around with ideas for a stamp/cutter in the evening (while binging on Game of Thrones – finally, I know). I then imported the design to Morphi app to model for 3D printing. This is what I came up with:

Design One

When I used it to imprint the clay, it was too detailed and busy to integrate well with the lack of structure within clay.

Too detailed

So I went back to the drawing board with a revised model:

Design Two

Which didn’t 3D print very well because the lines were too thin:

I went back in to Autodesk Sketchbook intending to thicken the lines and ended up with a whole different design:

Design Three

I liked this design a lot and it 3D printed very well. It also imprinted the clay nicely with minimal clean up, if any.

I ended up adjusting the size five times and printing it out in all five sizes, small to large. I have a New Matter Modt 3D printer that Santa brought a few years ago. It is at end-of-life and is challenging to print with. It did manage to eke out the pieces I needed.

The languishing New Matter Modt

Along with different sized stampers for different size vessels, I wanted the tracer/cutters to make a series of slab clay cutouts that diminish in size and are tied together as a hanging wall decoration.

5 sizes of stamper/cutters

5 sizes of stamper/cutters

Greenware peacocks

Bisque fired repeating peacocks to be strung together to hang on a wall

In the midst of this work, I decided to design and print a peacock feather (the eye, really) to hang at the bottom of a singular peacock cut-out.

Peacock feather

Once I finished all the slab work with the peacock and peacock feather cutters, I had to stop because we were going to be away for vacation. That would give the clay pieces a full week to dry. When we returned from vacation on August 17, I fired everything in the kiln. After firing, I took inventory. I was surprised at the volume of the fruits of my labor:

Yikes

Some close ups:

These will all be be glazed (hand painted) and fired (again) this fall, which will take focus, discipline, and determination because I will be back at school as of next week. At this point, with the studio having been open for not even two months, this is what has accumulated for glazing:

Meanwhile, I’m still working on making large plates. As mentioned before, I use YouTube to learn technique. I am blown away by the varied approaches to wheel throwing pottery, especially plates. I’m happy to say I’ve met with success this week thanks to this video by an art teacher in Illinois. This is the fourth technique I’ve tried and it worked well for me.

10″ plate – hallelujah!

I’ll make a few more large plates this week and weekend before going back to school on Monday. Once we settle in, the air will start to cool here in Massachusetts and I’ll no longer be able to work in the pottery studio. Instead I’ll spend my creative time glazing all of this pottery and picking up my brushes to resume watercolor painting for the winter, in the least, who knows what else?

Reflection – Pottery

My relationship with pottery is not new. I did some hand building and clay sculpture in high school. I don’t remember taking a clay class in art school, where I was first a graphic design major before switching to painting. I did take a ceramics class in my MEd program and loved it. A former colleague (hi Leia!) was a ceramics major and taught me a lot when we worked together. My students create clay projects a couple of times each year and I’ve offered many clay classes for our school Enrichment program, as well as week-long summer clay workshops like Clay Every Day. So my relationship with clay is not new, but it has never been consistent. It is an ability I developed well enough over time as an educator to be able to teach it.

There is something tremendously appealing to me to work with a substance, in this case clay, to manipulate it and have it manipulate you, as it resists or encourages your interaction with it. There are times, for instance in pulling a wall, where you are so in sync and everything is working perfectly. It feels like flying.

Other times it seems you can’t do anything right, and along with centering the clay, you have to center your head and be completely in the game. It is a fantastic stress reducer. It is a thoughtful solo experience that I find very peaceful, yet empowering. This is going to sound corny, but the entire process of working with clay within the space we’ve designated for it makes me feel like me again.

Reflection – Summer Learning

It may be obvious to a reader that working with clay on a sustained basis is professional development for an art educator. After all, artist educators were artists before they were teachers. For me, setting aside consistent time to work in the clay studio was a conscientious decision, in fact a reaction to how I have spent previous summers.

This is the first summer in a long time where I haven’t taken a professional development course, participated in a program, or taught a course or workshop (well, I did facilitate one workshop). Earlier this year, I took stock of my summer professional development over the previous five years:

  • 2018:
    • Massachusetts Arts Curriculum Frameworks Revision facilitation: Five working days with at-home work between meeting days
    • Project Based Learning three day workshop
    • TABnology one day workshop facilitation
    • Bay District Schools, Florida, one day on-site workshop facilitation, three days with travel
  • 2017
    • International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), San Antonio, four day conference and presentation of “weRmakers”
    • Framingham State College Coursework for Certificate In Instructional Technology
  • 2016
    • Framingham State College, Coursework for Certificate In Instructional Technology
    • Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) Summer Institute
    • Harvard Graduate School of Education, Online, Teaching and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom
    • International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Denver, four day conference
    • English Language Learner Training, Uxbridge, three days
    • Ed Tech Teacher Summer Workshop, Cambridge, three days
  • 2015
    • Harvard Graduate school of Education, Project Zero Classroom, Cambridge, five day workshop
  • 2014
    • Framingham State College, Framingham and Dedham and Online, STEM Certificate Program with PTC

I considered all of the out-of-pocket expenses, because aside from a $725 once per year course reimbursement and the occasional registration fee covered by my district, everything else (travel, hotel, commute, supplies, textbooks) was on me. And I considered the juggling I had been doing to take advantage of summer time off to relax and restore my energy and balance it with family medical issues and all of this professional development and commitment. Lastly, I factored in my work in leadership of my local teachers union from 2013-2017, which never stopped in summer. With all of this in mind, I decided that this summer would be different. And boy, am I glad I did!

All of this time on the clay studio has truly reenergized me. Not only that, but all the thought time has grounded me and made clear a focus to bring the “soul” back into my teaching. I have been feeling scattered over the past few years, darting between traditional art making, digital art making, 3D modeling, project based learning units, and student-directed art making. While all of these directions are good and valid, I haven’t felt an integration toward a common objective between them.

While all the clay work I’ve done this summer has developed my craft in this medium, it has not yet empowered my creativity and self-expression. I expect when I begin to paint the pieces (because painting is my medium) I will begin to feel like I am expressing myself artistically.

As I start school next week, the common thread or overarching goal within my classroom will be self-expression. With whichever medium my students are engaged, our collective focus will be on how the work can lead to self-expression. I expect this won’t always result in pretty, bulletin board showcase work, but I expect it will be of the utmost value to my students as growing human beings, citizens, part of our school community of learners and greater global community of artists.

I’ve been thriving all summer in the clay studio. If we are to empower our students to thrive, we must ourselves thrive. And not in a reactive way, say using meditative methods to decompress, but in purposeful engagement in activities that empower us to be our unique and individual best selves. Our time outside the classroom should be recognized and respected by our administration and our community as our own time to fulfill our personal responsibilities and engage in meaningful activity that leads to our own empowerment. It is only then that we can empower others.

Self-empowerment and self-expression will be my goals as we go back to school next week. Meanwhile, until the days grow cold again, I’ll be in the clay studio in my free moments.

Hello from the clay studio

This post is the final post, part eight, of a group of posts about my self-directed professional development in the summer of 2019. To see the others, search Summer Learning or 2019 Summer PD.

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