A place to see what is happening in Fine Arts at Rocky Mountain School for the Gifted and Creative

Thursday, October 16, 2008

the Importance of CLAY

(This is just the tip of the iceberg...I especially like the mother, father and baby stingray by "W" - kindergarten student)
Clay, Glorious Clay

I have just unloaded the kiln for about the 5th time this school year, and as I look around at the fired work, I notice that students who began the year with little or no experience or facility with clay have already made measurable strides. I also admire several skillfully made pieces by older, more experience students who not long ago struggled. Most impressive and noticeable is that the entire surface of the clay table is covered with work by my youngest students. The K-1 artists LOVE clay. They are fanatics. I worry a little as I survey their accomplishments that parents might feel a little overwhelmed by the quantity of clay items soon to be carefully wrapped in newspaper, labeled with a piece of masking tape and delivered into their homes; which brings me to the following article.
Last spring, I presented a session called Is There a Scribble Stage for Sculpture in New Orleans, for the National Art Education Association. Shortly afterwards, the following article came to my mailbox, from an art education professor in the Midwest. Although the article was written almost 20 years ago, it is relevant today. Especially today; Kiln unloading day.

A Critical Need: Children and Clay
By Eleese V. Brown (Professor of Art at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst)
We live and perform in a three-dimensional world, yet the vast majority of art experiences engaged in by school children are of a two-dimensional nature. Many reasons have been given for this, especially in relation to working with clay. Clay is difficult to handle, messy, hard to store, requires expensive equipment – just to name a few. Clay work and supplies may be messy and hard to store. However, expensive equipment is not necessary for quality clay activities. And to say clay is difficult to handle is a weak reason for avoiding it in art classes.
Having worked with children and clay for the past sixteen years, I have become painfully aware of the fact that we are introducing clay to children neither early enough nor often enough. We do not seem to realize the extent to which its use assists children’s artistic and conceptual development. Indeed, clay may be more difficult for children to control because they simply have not been exposed to it as early in life as they have crayons, pencils and the like. As a result of this bias, children clearly have an edge when it comes to using media and tools that make marks as opposed to those that produce three-dimensional art forms.
Few would disagree that the making of drawings, paintings and prints causes children to pay attention to themselves and the world around them. And that the recording of what they see, by using such media, results in learning about themselves and their environment. Why, then, do we constantly ignore the fact that working with clay is also a unique, even critical, expression of learning? Paying attention to an object and recording all one can is perhaps even a fuller learning experience, developmental experience and logical recording of the three-dimensional world children work, play and learn in.
Most children do not have the success they should have with clay because they do not have early exposure to the medium. We must move away from prejudices against clay and acknowledge the fact that working with clay balances the drawing, painting and printmaking experiences that children’s learning with art has been limited to for so many years.
In my early study involving children’s use of clay, their development in drawing a figure was compared with their development in making a clay figure. At that time, three through seven year old children’s development levels in making a clay figure of a man proved to be from one to three years behind those evident in their drawn figures. From the age of eight through eleven years, developmental levels appeared much the same in both drawn and clay figures.
In a study conducted approximately ten years later, the results were nearly identical. In both studies, the conclusions were the same: While it may not be reasonable to expect primary school children to produce a wide variety of clay items, it is not unreasonable to expect upper elementary children to do so. Children must be encouraged to produce much more than handprints in clay slabs, simple pots and ash trays. Through such encouragement, children would not only increase their ability to work with clay, they would also increase their concept development….(partial paragraph removed by me)
In addition to my work with younger children, I have also had several opportunities to teach Basic Foundations courses to college freshmen. Inevitably, their three-dimensional assignments are more like bas-relief – the “front” is highly detailed, while the “sides” and the “back” are quite simple. I strongly believe that this is the result of years of working with art materials on a flat surface with little or no regard to how something exists in a three dimensional context. I am convinced that all the re-looking and re-training that occurs on the secondary and college level would be unnecessary if students had been given the opportunity to work with clay at the elementary and junior high levels.
I do not advocate clay work once a year, but often. Without practice, regression occurs. Working in clay must be as much a regular and on-going activity as two dimensional activities. It is only logical to expect that as children work more frequently with clay, they will become more adept at working with it as a vital, expressive medium. Children neither write nor draw without time and practice. They will surely not develop any like facility with clay without the same consideration. While clay is certainly not the only three dimensional medium available, it is the most flexible and it provides a strong counterpoint to “flat” art!
(This article appeared in School Arts Magazine, December, 1986)

(collaborative clay face by "S" "S" &"K", a first grader and two 2nd graders)

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