By Kaitlyn Hay, Visual Arts Teacher
Ask any student—many will respond that their favorite project in art involved clay. There is something about clay that both excites and calms, challenges and flows, engages and sets free. Beauvoir students will work with clay multiple times per year, and not just any clay. Polymer clays and Model Magic are wonderful options, quick and requiring no other equipment besides a shelf to dry out on or maybe a kitchen oven. At Beauvoir, we are lucky enough to have a kiln and can work with earthenware clay that needs to be bisque-fired, and fired again if glazed. In my view, ceramics is a medium in which the sculptor is equally invested in process and product. An hour working with wet earth yields a multi-sensory experience in which body weight is leveraged to flatten clay into slabs, rolled with palms into coils, prodded and poked and shaped with finger, nail, and toothpick to make ears or eyes or wings or a handle emerge. Earthenware clay requires more muscle power than Model Magic, and fingernails will need a good scrubbing afterwards. I like to think that the comfort and cleanliness of an hour of screen time, no matter how enriching for the mind it may be, plays second fiddle to an hour of mess, struggle and triumph with clay. And at the end, there is true pride and love in an artist’s eyes when presenting a ceramic sculpture that they made, that they can maybe eat out of, and is the only one of its kind in the world.
I love exploring the mystery of ceramics with my students, from how the kiln’s coils work to the wonders of glaze changing from a powdery, matte finish to a high-gloss shine by the power of chemistry and heat. During a course on Outdoor Education this summer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I was surprised and elated to discover two remnants of gigantic, outdoor kilns. Encouraged by our professor to walk the streets and build curriculum based on the city’s natural and built environment, how serendipitous that I, an art teacher, would run past a pair of enormous brick kilns! My first thought upon seeing the hive-like structures was, “what interesting homes they have here,” they were that big. Upon reading the signage, I learned about Edinburgh’s involvement in industrial ceramics in the early 20th century, and how there was a movement in the 1990s to preserve the defunct kilns rather than demolish them (there are three brand-new apartment complexes barely feet away from the kilns). I was excited to learn not only about the history of the Thistleware industry in Edinburgh (akin to English Wedgwood china), but more about how these giant kilns functioned. Smoke created from the burning coal was funneled up and out through the chimney while various flues and chambers within the kiln helped regulate the temperature inside. Thousands of pieces of china would be fired at a time over a three-day first-firing session, and re-fired for two days once glazed. Since learning about all that’s involved to operate bottle kilns, I have gained a new respect for the ease and efficiency of our little Beauvoir kiln!
The kilns I discovered this summer, and our Beauvoir kiln, will serve as my personal icons of how the learning we do in the classroom can be enriched, furthered, and of course inspired, by the wonders of what lies just beyond its walls. We are lucky to have the historic riches and natural beauty of Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal, the Underground Railroad byway, and even the ruins of a gold mine at Great Falls right in our backyard. Untold connections are possible when we take note of, and learn from our environment. I look forward to sharing my summer experiences with my students, and to encourage them to make discoveries of their own by wandering, wondering, and getting messy.