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Paradoxes and problem solving.: an introductory ceramics program.

An Introductory Ceramics Program

Working on a small scale can yield big results--and no one may be more surprised than your students.

Teaching by means of paradox has great advantages for art educators. It promotes creativity. It is no coincidence that the Indian word for "teacher" is synonymous with "trickster." The invention of convenient fictions are recommended motivations for creative art programs--at least, this was my premise when teaching an introductory ceramics course.

An infinite number of motivational techniques can be used, but I have found one particular movie both fascinating and useful. The characters and environment of Dragon Castle are entirely made of oil-based clay. The special effects intrigue students with an enthusiasm for movie-making. Dragon Castle is an educational delight and can be enjoyed by all ages. It also admirably demonstrates the concept of a paradox.

How did this film fit in with an introductory ceramics program? It must be remembered that this was part of an introductory survey course in which very few teachers-in-training had even a rudimentary knowledge of working with clay. After viewing the film, I asked students to create the smallest possible monster and place it in an appropriately sized teacup.

Working on a small scale initially has some definite advantages. "Smallest possible" means different things to different people. Actually, I deliberately did not specify dimensions. "Largest" or even "tallest" might well have further intimidated those who viewed the course with trepidation anyway. "Small" suggests "I can handle it," and this certainly proved to be the case. We discussed problems of shrinkage and I demonstrated correct joining techniques. I made very little mention of the "teacup" part of the project--although this was the object of the exercise. The most logical way to make a small teacup is to make a pinchpot. Students therefore taught themselves one of the basic handbuilding methods.

Monsters or dragons make excellent subjects for initial encounters with clay. Once everyone comprehended the fact that they could give their imaginations free rein, the monsters flourished. Learning about the properties of clay was more or less incidental at this point, and that, of course, was the desired intention.

Next, I asked the students to make a hairy monster crossing a bridge. The objective was to experiment with slab techniques--although I did not state as such. I showed students how to make "hair" using mesh screens, and encouraged them to add textural qualities to the bridge to suggest different substances. It was only a very short time before the properties of suspended clay were put to the test. It was not always possible to judge accurately what weight an arched slab of clay might support. Fast adjustments often had to be made to the bridges. Monsters became more relaxed--even playful--as the projects progressed.

In the second phase of this program, I formally introduced students to handbuilding techniques, requiring pinchpots to become animated, and chess sets to be created from sculptural forms. Students had to work in groups at this point and plan, execute and coordinate what they found was quite a complex operation. The results, however, reflect their enthusiasm.

We used coil techniques to introduce clay portraiture, and group work was again the focal point for using slab. In the latter project, students created environments which were inhabited by alien beings. Time zones were unrestricted, and the settings could be as real or imaginary as the groups wished. Many of these environments were magnificent ventures--Punk Rock Land, Hat Land and Planet X were inspired fantasies. One group of students attempted to recreate the French Revolution, complete with guillotine. Others conjured up life among the Indians, Eskimos and Africans. One group depicted Rue de Gloire in Paris.

Drape molds were a final exercise in this phase of the course and, as a variation on a theme, students filled their slab dishes with their favorite foods. The results speak eloquently for themselves!

Dr. Pamela Sturgess is on the faculty of education at the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (The film Dragon Castle is distributed by Mobius, Ltd., Toronto, Canada.)
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Author:Sturgess, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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