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On claywork.

Clay offers students a unique and fundamental experience. The spontaneity and freedom with which clay is handled, shaped and formed is a uniquely creative emotional and intellectual activity.

Two aspects of pottery/ceramic education have particularly impressed me. First, the technical complexities of glazing and kiln-firing can often intimidate unqualified and inexperienced art teachers, and all too often claywork is thus abandoned. Second, instruction in claywork, pottery and ceramics seems to be in decline in the schools due to economic and educational cutbacks. Not only are primary teachers often unable to get in-service support, most children from five to eleven years old have no opportunity to handle or experience clay because clay equals firing equals kilns--and that totals up to some expense.

When I had the opportunity of establishing and equipping an artroom, I bought a kiln, wheel, basic glazes and several oxides. I had acquired a little clay knowledge during my preparation to teach art, but had not handled clay since, let alone taught it, fired a kiln, or made up even a basic glaze. I was totally inhibited by all the technicalities of glazing and firing and ignored the clay area for many months.

At last I decided to let the children use the clay as intuitively and imaginatively as they wished. The response was one of sheer creative pleasure. I then decided to apply for a ceramics in-service course at a nearby college. My plan was to experiment with clay in all its states from wet to dry, and to use different colored clays, some of which I would burnish. One part of my research revolved using clay two-dimensionally, i.e., drawing and painting with it. The other part used clay three-dimensionally. I had used a self-hardening clay before, but had found it a poor substitute for fired work. But, because fiber content acts as a hardening agent, I decided to experiment with a variety of fibers to shape, strengthen and form the self-hardening clay. I also used different fiber qualities decoratively. No money was available for my research but the college department was well equipped, so I set to work excited and enthusiastic about the prospects.


Clay, being part of the earth's surface, is cheap and readily available from a supplier or it can be dug and reclaimed by a simple process of washing and sieving. It is often found a few feet below the soil in many gardens, and can often be seen exposed alongside river beds or pathways. Find your local brickworks and you should find your local clay.

My first experiments were with wet clay and slips, splashing, trailing and painting them on paper. I sponge printed, used paper, wax and fabric resists, rolled soft clay into shapes and explored and invented a wide variety of marks and decorative techniques using clay on paper. I also made collages and drew pictures in the clay.

I found a variety of fibers that were easily available at no expense. Dishcloths, small fruit bags for oranges and tangerines and a variety of vegetable bags provided rolls of scrim. I now had a collection of strings, threads and fibers to play with. I rolled, pressed and pinched the fibers over the surface, using the threads and strings as if I was drawing, working intuitively and responding to the possibilities as the clay and the fibers worked together. Sometimes I buried the fibers; sometimes I exposed them rippling over the surface of a folded form. I decorated the forms with slips, splashing and painting them on. When dry, I cracked areas and exposed the crazed lines that were like a very fine drawing. I coiled large pots using the fibers as decoration and as a support for the shape. I also added feathers for decoration. The flat forms could be easily hung up, and the folded forms I stapled onto cardstock with battens on the back. The three-dimensional forms, if carefully handled, were quite permanent.

I also made 5" x 5" (13 cm x 13 cm) tiles using red, grey and dark brown clay decorated with slips of white, red and black. I decorated the tiles with slips and burnished some of them. Others I modelled in low-relief or impressed with natural and humanmade objects. I found that water-based paints could be used very successfully on a damp clay surface. All the creative processes--tiles, slabs, pinched and coiled forms--were made without the use of a wheel or a kiln. Unless I dropped a piece or it ca,he into contact with water, it remained unchanged. I mounted most pieces on wood boards or cardstock.

In the classroom

Later, I volunteered to teach a short clay course in a local primary school to a group of ten to eleven-year-old children. I planned eight projects of three hours each, and covered all the areas of learning I had researched. The children responded with enthusiasm and open minded curiosity, accepting every challenge I presented to them.

I introduced clay mark-making, collage techniques and simple picture-making, using slip on paper to develop the students' clay drawing language. We then made a clay tile, decorating it with slips using a brush, sponge and scraper. To develop students' sense of touch, I made a variety of "feely" cards using fibers, fur, pins, stones, etc., and "feely" boxes using spaghetti, jello, eggs, etc. I blindfolded the children and asked them to feel the different textures. It was great fun with lots of "ooh's" and "ah's."

We made tiles of different surface textures using human-made and natural objects. I introduced the concept of three dimensions through observation of natural objects, such as shells, driftwood and seed-heads. The students then modelled these objects from small balls of clay. We then took slabs of clay into the environment and made impressions of car tires, grids, walls, leaves, twigs, etc., comparing different textural qualities. Some children collected a variety of natural objects from the playground and made small gardens with leaves, twigs and stones impressed into clay slabs. I linked all the projects with a history of art and ceramics, showing paintings, drawings, pots and ceramic sculpture.

Clay changing into ceramic is fantastic, but the magic of fire is expensive. Financial restrictions should not put the medium of clay out of the school curriculum or anyone's learning and creative experience. Clay, and the objects that form from it, has so much to offer!

Paula Veldardei Rudd is an art educator living in Lancaster, England.
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Author:Rudd, Paula Veldardei
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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