Sundials: Where Math, Science and Joy Collide

I only tell sunny hours” – a sundial

I worked on a little project this weekend.

Way back in 2007, in a summer art workshop called Altered Environments, the kids created mosaics on large flower pots, along with many other courtyard beautification projects you can read about here: https://monalisaliveshere.me/2017/03/29/once-upon-a-time-the-courtyard-project/. We made a bird bath that has been in the courtyard ever since:

Two tiered birdbath installed in summer of 2007

The kids created two more mosaic flower pots on which we planned to rest a sundial when we joined them together. We didn’t get around to adding the sundial before the session ran out, so the two mosaic pots took up residence in my classroom while waiting to be attended to.

It wasn’t until about five years later that I got around to making the sundial for it. A lot had transpired in those five years, including the donation and installation of a kiln, which brought ceramics to the forefront of my curriculum. I offered an after school enrichment class in the spring called Wind Chimes, Sundials, & Spring, Spring, Spring, where one of the projects was clay sundials.

The sundial is both simple and complicated. I remember trying to find information on appropriate angles and layout of the hours markings for an effective sundial in Massachusetts and encountering something like this:

https://sundials.org/teachers-corner/sundial-mathematics/9-calculating-dial-lines-1.html

Immediately intimidated by all that math (insert anxious face), I opted to follow the template from a NASA lesson plan which made a lot more sense to this visual learner:

From an archived NASA lesson plan plan: https://pwg.gsfc.nasa.gov/stargaze/Lsundial.htm

I made a copy for each artist to use as a template and tracer and we crafted sundials using the slab method of hand building.

The sundial I made in 2012

If you clicked on the link to read about the courtyard project, you saw how nice and neat and well groomed it looked. Over time the condition of the courtyard deteriorated. Others took on projects there and eventually abandoned them. The tables we had worked to get for the outside space were taken out and placed around the school. Garden projects were attempted by a few groups and the space became a sort of free-for-all. About this time, I lost my affinity with the courtyard and during one summer cleaning session, took home the two mosaic flower pots, which sat on my front porch for a few years. I just brought home my sundial when I retired this February.

Over the weekend I decided it was time to put it all together. We had beautiful weather this weekend with temps in the 70s both days. I was able to initiate the first firing of the season for my kiln, and I always stay home while that’s happening. So I had time to spare and the weather I needed to work outdoors with grout and buttons. The kids had already embellished the actual flower pots.

Two terracotta flower pots and an inverted saucer

Using grout, I adhered the sundial to the outside bottom of a flower pot saucer:

Saucer

And used grout to adhere it to the top of the smaller flower pot. Rather than sticking the two pots together, I drove a dowel into the ground to hold the two pots together vertically. The piece would be too heavy if I grouted all the pieces together.

I used buttons to decorate around the sundial and marked North, South, East, and West with old typewriter keys:

Typewriter keys

This wasn’t necessary, but I thought it would be fun. Thanks to google, I learned that the sundial gnomon must face true North in order for the sundial to work. Then I used the compass on my phone to point the sundial in the right way. Just laid my phone on the sundial, aligned with the gnomon, and got it in position. Guess what time it was when I took this photo…

Yup! Two o’clock! It worked!

So now I have this fun, creative, and a little wacky sundial in my backyard. Not only does it tell time when the sun is out, it reminds me of all the moments with kids I was lucky to have as a teacher. Memories of outdoor projects with young artists shifting from absolute engagement in creating something colorful to enliven a space – to moments of pure joy and laughter, reveling in the sun, fresh air, and open space. Frolicking. These opportunities were scarce, especially here in New England, so they seemed all that more joyous and the memories made more potent.

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