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Clay, as every art teacher learns, is a material with extraordinary versatility. This versatility can be both a virtue and a burden. An awareness of the seemingly limitless creative possibilities offered by clay can also lead to the feeling that one should constantly be coming up with something new.

In one sense, there may be very few genuinely new ideas. Any ceramist who has found copies of "original" ideas while perusing a book about, say, ancient Chinese pottery can confirm this. One approach to finding new classroom uses for clay is to identify and concentrate on which of clay's many physical and educational properties are to be explored, rather than on what kinds of objects are to be made.

Will the lesson emphasize clay's plasticity, or its ability to be transformed into rock through the action of heat? Or both? Will there be a discussion of the natural processes by which rocks weathered into clay throughout the cons, or will the clay be manipulated and enjoyed out of pure pleasure in the characteristics that it possesses here and now? Will the project be put in an art history context? Is the lesson intended to coordinate with the students' studies in the sciences or humanities?

Equally valid projects can be developed either by severely limiting the number of these properties to be explored, or by attempting to include as many as possible. In creating a lesson for my fifth grade students, I took the latter course and included as much information as I believed my students could absorb.

A Modern Fossil

The object of the lesson was to create our own fossils. By working with ancient subject matter, I was able to create an easy association with the ancient nature of the process whereby parent rock was turned into clay. By studying the ways heat and pressure make permanent impressions of life forms, I was able to explain the basic plastic and transformational characteristics of the ceramic processes. By choosing a fairly spontaneous and enjoyable methodology, I was able to emphasize the sheer fun of creatively manipulating pliable mud. And by choosing a subject usually associated with science, I was able to coordinate the learning experience with a unit of study currently being taught by the regular classroom teacher.

But does the world really need one more neatly formed patty of clay with a fern impression in the middle? In order to give a new twist to an old process, we decided that the creatures and critters in our fossils would be creations of the imagination. The assignment was to create--either purely from the imagination or by combining features of known life forms--fossil evidence that might initially be taken by a scientist for the real thing. We decided to perpetrate a hoax!

In developing our "new" ancient life forms, we tried to avoid the outlandish, since a dragonfly with, say, Bart Simpson's head might be a dead giveaway. Most students were fairly subtle in their inventions. Fish were given graceful wings. Insects grew plant-like appendages. Completely new creatures came into being to send the taxonomists scurrying to their books.

The only materials we needed were red earthenware clay, Styrofoam sheets, pencils, paper and scissors. After each student developed several ideas on paper, the most successful design was lightly drawn on the Styrofoam plate and the basic shape cut out. Physical features such as bones, appendages, scales and skin textures were simulated by deeply embossing the Styrofoam with a slightly dull pencil--just as if it were being prepared for block printing.

We cut, tore and pounded the pieces of clay in order to simulate the randomness of the kinds of pieces of rock in which real fossils are likely to be found. Finally, we inverted our embossed Styrofoam creatures (again, as if we were about to print with them) and pressed them deeply into our clay "rocks." If the Styrofoam wasn't too badly damaged, it could be used again to create additional impressions.

After being fired, our hoax fossils might not really fool a scientist. But some future anthropologist might well recognize them for what they really are--thumbprints of the imagination!

Timothy R. Gallucci teaches art at North side Elementary School, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
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Title Annotation:students make their own fossils in clay
Author:Gallucci, Timothy R.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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