By Elizabeth Holman
Issue 113, July/August 2002
Six-year-old Maya Babow beams with pride as she reaches into her treasure trove of colorful ceramic Beanie Baby props. Maya has been working with clay for nearly half her life. Her eyes sparkle with enthusiasm as she displays the exquisite miniature tea set that she formed and glazed from start to finish. Maya and her mother, Karen Levin, work together in a clay studio about once a week-Levin on the potter's wheel, Maya doing hand building. Levin appreciates the opportunity to share a creative experience with her daughter while at the same time doing her own thing.
As many parents have discovered, enjoying ceramics with a child opens doors to creativity, strengthens relationships, and is a lot of fun. Children are natural artists, and watching them play with clay is a lesson in the joy and freedom of creative expression. Margaret Fitzgerald, an artist and former elementary school art teacher, has guided children through a variety of clay projects. "Children respond with great enthusiasm to clay," she says. "It is always their favorite art project because of the immediate tactile experience." She notes that there is something primal in the way children react to clay and likens it to playing in the mud.
Fitzgerald has observed children venting frustrations while molding a lump of clay, then leaving the room calm and satisfied. Some of the younger children, she remembers, had difficulty rolling coils or joining slabs, but with a little help rose to the challenge of the more complex projects. When the projects were complete, the children were especially proud of their shiny clay bells, masks, coil pots, and animal figures.
Although many children are uninhibited artists, the same cannot always be said of their parents. For some adults, the door to artistic expression has long been bolted shut. While leading training workshops for teachers, Fitzgerald "saw a lot of anxiety." She heard the same story over and over, of people who had been humiliated as children and had never pursued art again. "For example, they had painted the sky orange instead of blue, and had been reprimanded for it." For some parents, working with clay has opened the door to their own creativity. Warren Dranit and his six-year-old daughter, Yanna, have been spending Saturday mornings at a clay studio for about a year. At first Dranit simply helped Yanna, or sat beside her reading the newspaper. "I never did art before, and I've never been creative," he says. But with a nudge from instructor Joan Lindt, he started working on the potter's wheel. Though he commented on the uneven thickness of the walls of his bowl, it was evident that he was well on his way to learning this craft.
Lindt, who has been teaching ceramics at her home studio, Family Tree Pottery, in Petaluma, California since 1996, observes how children and their parents interact there. Away from the home routine, she says, a special bonding takes place between parents and kids. Lindt's studio is small and crowded, but her energetic and interactive style makes the space work. Her eight-year-old daughter, Megan, often wanders in, followed by two tail-wagging dogs. Megan plops down at the potter's wheel and, with the help of her mother, forms a cylinder. Four is generally a good age for kids to begin working with clay, Lindt advises. By age five or six they can start working on the wheel (with a lot of help), and between eight and ten years, they usually have the strength and coordination to work independently on the wheel.
The creative possibilities of clay are nearly limitless. The evolution of the dry clay (green ware) to the dull pinkish clay (bisque ware) to the final glazed piece is almost magical. Once child and parent get hooked on clay, they may not want to quit. As children enter their teens, sharing an interest in ceramics can help parents stay connected to their kids.
Thirteen-year-old Kevin Quale and his mother, Cindy, have been going to Portland, Oregon's Multnomah Art Center for six years. The center's clay studio has two large rooms, one equipped with potter's wheels, the other with hand-building tables, a slab roller, and a glaze area. Kevin works on the wheel, while his mother is in the next room hand building. "I like it. I can show her my work and we talk about it," Kevin remarks. He makes bowls, plates, vases, and most recently, a chips and salsa dish, and says that he has improved a lot over the years. "Sometimes I purposely mess it up, and that's cool."
For Cindy, going to the studio with Kevin satisfies her passion for making art and allows her to be with her son. "I can observe him without being intrusive." The two also go to ceramic exhibitions together: "He doesn't get as excited about the work as I do, but he can relate to it, and we discuss it."
There are many different settings for working with clay. Community centers, private studios, universities, and community colleges may offer ceramics classes for children and adults; some have open studio time or charge a fee for firing and glazing pieces made at home.
If you want to set up a home studio, all you need is a clay table located away from eating areas. Clay and basic tools are inexpensive and can be purchased at a ceramic supply store. Odds and ends around the house, such as forks, lace fabric, and toy truck tires, can be used to texture clay surfaces. There are many books and magazines that offer instruction, ideas, and inspiration.
Whatever the setting, parents need to be aware of hazards associated with clay and glazes. Food and drink should not be brought into the clay area, and "clay clothes" should be laundered after use. Clay dust is toxic to the lungs, so every effort should be made to avoid inhaling particles of clay. The clay studio must be kept clean: wipe tables with a damp sponge, and hose floors down or wash them with a damp mop. Wash hands well after working with clay. Avoid leaded glazes, and consult store managers and studio instructors about other potentially toxic materials.
Working with clay can be a safe and fulfilling experience. Once we acknowledge that there are few rights and wrongs in art, the artistic spirit in each of us is unleashed. Our ball of clay may become a cup, a tile, or an abstract form-it doesn't matter which, for it's the process that is most important. Being fully engrossed in the creative process keeps the mind in the present moment. When we share this experience with our children, we aren't thinking about yesterday or what we will be doing tomorrow. Instead we are sharing life and love with them now.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Craft, American Craft Council, 72 Spring Street, New York, New York 10012-4019; 212-274-0630; www.craftcouncil.org.
Ceramics Monthly, PO Box 6102, Westerville, Ohio 43086-6102; 614-523-1660; www.ceramicsmonthly.org.
Clay Times: The Journal of Ceramic Trends & Techniques, 15481 Second Street, PO Box 365, Waterford, Virginia 20197; 540-882-3576; www.claytimes.com.
Acero, Raúl. Making Ceramic Sculpture: Techniques, Projects, Inspirations. Lark Books, 2001.
Bliss, Gill. Practical Solutions for Potters: Your Top 465 Questions with Thousands of Practical Solutions. Sterling Publications, 1998.
Clayton, Pierce. The Clay Lover's Guide to Making Molds: Designing, Making, Using. Lark Books, 1998.
Davis, Don. Wheel-Thrown Ceramics: Altering, Trimming, Adding, Finishing. Lark Books, 1998.
Pancioli, Diana. Extruded Ceramics: Techniques, Projects, Inspirations. Lark Books, 2000.
Peterson, Susan. Working with Clay: An Introduction. Overlook Press, 1998.
Zakin, Richard. Ceramics: Mastering the Craft, second edition. Krause Publications, 2001.
If you want more information about playing with earth, see the following article in a past issue of Mothering: "Science A La Mud," no. 47.
Elizabeth Holman, a freelance writer, ceramic artist, and mother, lives in Petaluma, California, with her husband and two teenagers. She has been taking her children with her to clay studios since they were five and six, and their clay creations are proudly displayed throughout the house.
Photo by Maggie-Heinzel Neel