16 May 2015

Connection and Clay . . .

In May of last year, I was part of a pilot arts program at The Singapore Boys' Home. 

The Singapore Boys' Home is a juvenile residential home, run by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. It provides care and rehabilitation for boys between seven and sixteen years old, housing about 380 youths. 

I taught a clay workshop for 12 boys on 3 consecutive evenings. We made masks and pots and--on the last night--they were able to make whatever they wanted. Then I went back in August and we painted all of the projects. 

It was an amazing experience. 

Most of the boys had never worked with clay before. And they absolutely loved it. I basically just had to show them how to score and slip, and they took the reigns from there . . . 

The guys took a lot of risks, building relatively large pieces and things with quite a bit of detail. It was fantastic! And their response was overwhelming. They wanted more classes and more creative experiences . . . 

Clay can change people's lives. Or it did for me, anyhow . . .  

The first time I really felt like art (A.R.T.) could make a difference in my life was in the clay studio. I talked about it here, during my heartbreak at the closing of the clay facilities at The University of Texas. I grew up there. I became a real, live artist there. (In my head, at least.) It was my home

I could make anything I wanted out of clay. It was like being in a kitchen with all of the ingredients laid out in front of you. A lot of chemistry takes place in the studio, from glaze mixing to firing the gas kilns to making clay. And it's incredibly labor intensive, which I completely respect. You have a relationship with clay from the moment you touch it and begin to work with it. You have to hold it's proverbial hand every step of the way. There's fragility, strength, imagination, color, fire, and comradery. It's all-encompassing.

I've been investigating more on this "change" topic lately. Especially since embarking on my newest project. And teaching the introductory clay class at The Singapore Boys' Home helped to reminded me why I do what I do.

I mean, I teach art every day. But within giant, fast-paced schools, art doesn't get the notice it is well-deserved. Students can still love it and be affected by it. Sure. But in smaller, more intimate environments, lifelong connections can be made. And more times than not, clay can facilitate that connection. Maybe it's because of the transformation that happens: the change within mirrors the transformation of the clay from mud to object. 

I've never had a connection to another kind of material like I have with clay. Fabric comes close, but it's not the same. There is something so magical about clay. Molding of the earth, perhaps.

One of the first books I read in my Community Arts graduate program was called Make The Impossible Possible by Bill Strickland. Mr. Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsman's Guild in Pittsburgh, an innovative nonprofit that uses the arts to inspire and mentor inner-city teenagers. About clay, he said this: "I was a young kid just about flunking out of school. And one afternoon I happened to walk past the ceramics studio. I glanced inside and here was this man throwing pots. Frank Ross. Now, I don't know how many of you have ever seen a ceramics wheel turning, but if you have, you know it's magic. It was like a big invisible hand lifted me up and carried me over to that wheel."

More recently I came across a link on the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Art's (NCECA) Facebook page. It was an image of a pottery wheel with the words, "this machine kills hate" scrawled on the front of it. I had to know more . . . Upon further research, I found Roberto Lugo. Below is his Emerging Artist talk published on March 30th of this year. It's completely filled with emotion, and rightfully so.

Superman. Power. Building strength through making. It's a relationship, right? Connection as relationship. I found this video on Baltimore Clayworks' website. "Spiritual" comes up several times in the video. I think that says a lot . . . 

I don't know if the students I taught at The Singapore Boys' Home will ever work with clay again. From their playful banter and excited conversations during our time together, I can tell you that something was happening. Was it a lifelong change taking place? Perhaps not. But for that brief moment in time, there was magic.

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