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Expressive human imagery in clay.

The human form can be a celebration of wrinkles, dimples, warts and scars--a wonderful playground in which to immerse beginning college sculpture students. Clay is a good medium for this experience because it can be easily manipulated. A visit to a retirement home provides students with the proper environment to study expressive faces with a lifetime of human experience.

Before the students embark on the final project, my first goal is to teach them the value of proportion and simplicity in effective sculpting, so they are able to view a complex subject like the body and clarify it both physically and spiritually. At the beginning of the semester, the students take turns modeling for one another in full-body poses and sculpting what they see. I place a time frame (three-minute to thirty-second increments) and a size limitation (three-inch height) on this exercise, so the students are forced to avoid unnecessary shapes and stick to the essentials of the whole figure. Observation is the key to success, so I tell them to look more at the model than the clay, letting their fingers follow the intuitive mind's eye.

At mid-semester, the students wrap clay around a tightly wadded newspaper ball to form a life-size human skull which I then fire. A subsequent portrait project follows, with a strong focus on correct anatomy. Students find themselves really seeing the unique and diverse facial features on those around them for the first time.

The return to clay at the end of the semester is usually welcomed because of its yielding properties as opposed to the obdurate and often stubborn personality of other sculpture media. The students' assignment is to do three portraits of people in a retirement home during a ninety-minute visit. These requirements force the students to rely on intuition to capture essentials and impressions, and doesn't allow them time to consciously labor over the pieces, which often results in work that lacks emotion and spontaneity.

The students were to use an impressed pattern on at least one of the three faces. A textured clay slab is draped over wadded newspaper. These stripes, checkers and bumps, etc., seem to speak metaphorically of the person's skin tone and texture and, possibly, what the subject is wearing. Magic can happen when the clay stretches, tears and fractures while being bent, smeared and cut to capture a particular glint or gesture. Muscles give way to gravity just as clay yields to this and other forces. I challenge the students to capture the essence of hair, jewelry and clothing expressively.

The students and residents engage in small talk, but there is a silent and significant dialog taking place. The residents usually accept the struggling artist's product. Vanity surrenders to the enthusiasm of the moment. I think the elderly subjects see that these students value, respect, and actually find beauty in them as people, just as they are.

I find that working along with the students on this final project instills confidence, and shows that I also enjoy and value this activity. Statements like "I never would have thought that this activity would be so neat," or "I'm going to do this again," indicate that something very positive has happened. Glazed and fired faces live on to testify to an intense, quality involvement.
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Author:Dynneson, Donald L.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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