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The politics of clay: the American-Soviet mural project.

One of the most creative gestures of peace and friendship between Americans and Soviets occurred this past year when Joel Pfeiffer (high school art teacher/ceramicist) united American citizens from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area with Soviet citizens of Leningrad in the creation and exchange of two peace murals made of clay.

Joel is known around his hometown of Hartland, Wisconsin for hosting "clay stomps"--community events where people get together, take off their shoes and blend a mixture of dry clay and water using their bare feet. The stompers have to lock arms to support each other in this invigorating work or they fall over. Joel discovered that inhibitions are lost, barriers broken, and spoken language unnecessary when people share the joy of this common experience. Participants can't help but come away with new friends and a feeling of accomplishment.

In 1980 realizing many of the elderly couldn't come to a clay stomp, Joel took the stomp to them. The elderly of the River Hills Nursing Home in Pewaukee stomped clay along with their caretakers, relatives and friends. Then, using the clay they made, they formed and decorated tiles that Joel made into murals. The nursing home stomp was videotaped and the video--"Le Stomp,"--was voted one of the ten best videos at a convention in Minneapolis co-sponsored by the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers and the National Endowment of the Arts. The murals are still brightening the walls of the nursing home.

Joel doesn't have a narrow definition of "community." For years he dreamed of organizing an international clay stomp. He proposed this idea to the UN a few years ago, and while it didn't seem to go anywhere at the time, Joel was not discouraged and insisted it would happen. His proposal was remembered and he was invited to attend the Soviet-American Citizens' Summit, February 1-5, 1988, in Alexandria, Virginia. At this summit, approximately zoo American citizens and 100 Soviet citizens worked together to come up with projects that would give people in both countries an opportunity to connect and communicate with each other to promote peace.

Joel's project, "Clay--A Healing Way," proposed two clay stomps, one in the U.S. and one in the Soviet Union. A peace mural would be made at each site, and the murals exchanged between the countries. The murals would be a lasting visual reminder of the citizens' desire, in both countries, for peace.

Joel's proposal caught the imaginations of the citizens at the summit. Over the next year, Joel gained sponsorship from Wisconsin Educators for Social Responsibility in America and the Foundation for Social Inventions in the Soviet Union. He gathered a core of people to help with the plans, and traveled to the Soviet Union twice to make plans and connections for his international "community unity" dream. T-shirts and tile sponsorships were sold to raise the funds necessary to pay for the project and countless supporters made in-kind donations.

The American Stomp

On June 11, 1989, the American Stomp took place on the shore of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Close to 5,000 people came to stomp clay and make impressions of peace and friendship in the 8' x 32' (2.4 m x 9.7 m) clay mural. One of the mural tiles was elevated so that the physically disabled could participate. One of the most moving experiences that day was watching a blind man led the impressions in the clay that would soon go to the Soviet Union. A "People to People" tent was set up where anyone could write a note to a Soviet, accompanied by a photograph.

The incredibly detailed mural was salt fired at Rockdale Union Pottery in Cambridge, Wisconsin and crated with the "Heart and Soul" symbol of the project. At the end of July, a delegation of thirty Americans accompanied it to the city of Leningrad.

The Soviet Stomp

On July 30, at the St. Peter and Paul fortress on the Neva River, the Soviet Stomp took place. Accompanied by an ensemble of street musicians, complete with bobbing three-dimensional stick puppets, thousands of Soviet citizens and thirty Americans had the stomp of their lives. The images of peace, made by young and old alike, were beautiful. Hundreds of small clay sculptures were also molded by the Soviet people. It was a sunny day and, after giving each other clay "facials" and hair sculptures, the clay-covered participants were able to go for a swim in the Neva River to rinse off. Joel's goal of breaking the language harrier to unite people in this common experience was obviously successful as people smiled and hugged each other throughout the day.

The exchange

On August 4, the American mural was unveiled in Leningrad. Soviet television and newspapers covered the stomp and the unveiling. People all over the city knew of the project and were excited to be a part of it. The American mural will be permanently installed in Leningrad's Peace Park.

In October, twelve Soviets and the Soviet mural arrived in Milwaukee. Those of us who had traveled to Leningrad were really excited to see our new friends again and they were thrilled to be in the United States. For most, it was their first time out of their country. The highlight of their visit was the unveiling of the Soviet mural, hosted by the Milwaukee Art Museum. Again, the feelings of friendship and community were obvious when thousands of people came to see the standing-room only event.

Joel's dream of an international stomp had come true. The two murals are beautiful, and will be a lasting visual reminder in both countries of our desires for peace and friendship. Many Americans and Soviets have become pen pals through the "People to People" connection. But the best part is the lasting friendships that were made. In spite of the fact that we didn't speak the same languages, and came from countries that have been considered enemies for decades, we found we shared a common love of life and a desire to be friends. Through one art teacher's dream, we've all broadened our sense of community to include our new friends from across the ocean.

Lynn Preston is elementary art specialist at Swallow School, Hartland, Wisconsin. Joel Pfeiffer teaches art at Arrowhead High School, Hartland, Wisconsin.
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Author:Preston, Lynn
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1990
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