Thursday, September 16, 2010

Working with Clay

Yesterday I introduced clay to my students for the first time. Clay always sends a bit of a shiver down my spine; even though I know it's valuable work (and I purchased Basic Sculptural Modeling: Developing the Will by Working with Pure Forms in the First Three Grades by Hella Loewe and planned a clay modeling block for this winter) the classroom logistics always freak me out. Like watercolor painting, there's sooo much prep. On the other hand, like watercolor painting, it's absolutely lovely to see the classroom peaceful and still with the students completely and silently absorbed in their work.

We read Owl Eyesby Frieda Gates. This Creation story, based on a Mohawk legend, tells of Raweeno the Creator forming the animals out of clay. Then I gave each child a piece of clay and 20 minutes to form any animal of their choosing. I didn't give any lessons in technique for this initial introduction, it was more of an exploration. The focus was on the correct way of dealing with clay in the classroom.

First, I spent the entire morning moistening my clay. We had received a donation of several boxes of self-drying clay.

I wrapped each clay block in a terry cloth towel saturated with HOT water and placed it in a ziploc gallon size bag. I renewed the hot water several times between 9 am and noon. At 12:30 I took the clay out and cut it into slices with a wire. This was a fun experience (kidding)! I'd never tried to moisten clay this way, I always just plopped it into a bucket of water. But I had a friend tell me that this is the way to moisten clay powder and it's not necessary when you buy a block. In fact, a lot of the clay dissolves into the water and is then wasted. So I was following her suggestion, and the block did get moist, but what I then realized is that I had never cut clay with a wire before and it's not self-explanatory. Trial and error is the thing, if you don't have some one to show you how.

First, I placed the clay block on a cafeteria tray and tried to push the wire down through it from top to bottom, using the handles. The wire is long and the handles weren't at all located to give me leverage. Also, the wire stopped halfway through the block and I couldn't get it to go through. Frustrated, I tried to slice the clay (from top to bottom) over and over with no luck. My clay modeling time was drawing near and I was worried that I wouldn't have any clay at all for the children to use. Determined to at least give them a little bit, I next tried swiping the wire over the top surface of the clay, where it was the wettest, to slice off a tiny sliver or two. This worked but not well. Then I moved the wire a little further down on the block and twirled the wire around the clay block, swirling it and pulling on the handles. Ta da! It cut beautifully through and I ended up with a nice 1/4 inch slice of clay right off the top. Encouraged, I tried again. Over and over I was able to cut the clay by wrapping the wire around the block horizontally and crossing the two ends of the wire over each other and continuing to pull until the wire met itself in the core of the block and cut successfully through. This must be the way you are supposed to use it! It explains, at least, why the wire is so long. Then I used my hands to pull the slices into smaller sections and I was ready for the class.

I gave them each a cafeteria tray for a work surface. They also each wore a smock (large men's button front shirts from the thrift store, work backwards with the buttons up the back). I impressed upon them that clay can NOT GO DOWN the bathroom sink drain because it will ruin the septic tank. Under no circumstances were they to wash their hands in the bathroom sink. Then I read the story and passed out the clay. When they were done I told them that we'd be working with clay later in the school year and that they were to return their piece to a ball or block form and bring it up front to me, hang up their smocks, and go outside. My assistant had filled a dishpan with warm soapy water and the children washed their hands quickly and easily. Then we poured the water in the yard. I suppose, writing this, that we shouldn't have done that since it had soap in it so I will need to research whether there's an environmentally friendly way to do this. But the hands got clean and the children had a marvelous time. I returned the (now smaller) clay pieces to the ziploc gallon bags and breathed a sigh of relief.

The conclusion: clay doesn't have to be a demon to work with. But practice your techniques in advance of the big day!

Another wonderful Waldorf modeling book is Arthur Auer's Learning about the World through Modeling. Some good traditional clay books are Children, Clay, And Sculptureby Cathy Weisman Topal (one of my teachers at Smith) and The Great Clay Adventure: Creative Handbuilding Projects For Young Artistsby Ellen Kong.

1 comment:

Eva said...

This was very helpful for me, because I've thrown away so many hardened clay blocks! I didn't know you could moisten them. Thank you.