Because my students love clay, I feel fortunate to have a kiln. And, it is my understanding that, barring a disaster, it should last for my entire career. So I am “maxing it out” by doing as many fired clay projects as we possibly can from October to March.
It is counterintuitive, but I have found that clay projects can be some of the most economical, if treated responsibly. Furthermore, I have completely abandoned clumsy coil pots and the notion that all young students can plausibly create free-choice, hand-built sculptures that they will be proud of in the long run. I have set out to provide them with the tools and techniques necessary to produce refined, functional works of art.
First, I had each of the students take a softball-size piece of clay. I had them hold it up so I could confirm that it was enough (my students are always conservative when it comes to amassing their clay). I then demonstrated how to flatten the clay with their palms, onto a piece of newspaper.
I showed them how to check their widths against their molds. Then they set dowel rods on each side of the clay and rolled it out with a rolling pin. I rotated around the room as some of my students were smaller and lacked the strength/weight to flatten their clay into a slab. I instructed them to stop at this benchmark and wait for further instructions.
Once the students had reached this same point, I provided them with further instructions to pace them. I had them lay their molds (plastic microwave dinner trays) opening side down onto the clay. They traced around the shape and then, using nails, carved their names, the date, etc., on the clay. They then flipped the clay over and placed it onto the opening of the dinner tray. I cautioned them not to let trays get switched after cutting, as they were not all exactly the same size.
We put the work on racks, as I explained to them that the power of gravity would create a dip in their slabs, which would give them a platter shape. (After class I gently pressed them all in the center, just in case the clay was too thick or the shape was too small to slump on its own.)
Once the clay platters dried, we used wet sponges to smooth their edges and bottoms. I demonstrated how they needed to smooth over their writing on the back, without completely erasing it. We briefly sponged over the top as well. I cautioned them not to go overboard with the sponging or water, as it could weaken the clay body, and assisted a few students shave off chunky imperfections with other tools, when needed. This process only required half of a class period so I had some other activities lined up.
Because the shapes were flat and unglazed it was easy to stack them all into the kiln for a single firing. After they were fired, students sanded them for a few minutes after being cautioned not to breathe the dust. We then used permanent markers to color the edges black. It was important to get the edges smooth so the marker could get into all surfaces. They colored a 0.25-inch border around the top edges of their platters, which would provide a juncture for their decoupage to overlap itself without hanging over the clay’s edge.
Because of the time of year, photocopies of Día de los Muertos–themed collages, which I prepared ahead of time, were dispersed to the students, who then cut and tore them into smaller pieces to use for their decoupage. Students brushed on a solution, which I had made by mixing glitter glue with white school and water (half water, half glue). As I had demonstrated, students brushed the glue onto the clay’s surface and then on both sides of the paper. I encouraged them to work around the inside perimeter first like shingles on a roof, and suggested they save their favorite pieces of paper for last and place them prominently on the top surface of their platters.
Once they had finished with the black and white papers and had shown them to me for approval, they picked a couple of accent papers to add to their work, if they wished. These included gift-wrap, foiled papers, origami paper and small laser-printed images (anything that would not bleed when wet).
After the students’ work had dried for a few days, I sprayed them after school with a clear spray paint, which gave them a luster. The glossy clear coat brought out the contrast of colors and provided a finished look. Because the students had sponged and sanded them smooth, their platters looked very refined and well crafted.
We received so much positive feedback about this project that I plan to continue doing it with my young students each year. The only thing I would adapt for this younger age group is to have a couple of parent volunteers help the children roll out the slabs.
Upper-elementary and middle-school students will…
• demonstrate skills appropriate to the task of slumping a slab of clay.
• use various tools and techniques to smooth a clay’s surface.
• be able to apply decoupage to a rounded form.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Conceiving and developing artistic ideas and work.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
• Rolling pins, dowel rods, bowl shapes
• Clay, sponges, kiln
• Permanent markers
• Glue, printed material
• Nails, clear spray paint
• Día de los Muertos
David Laux teaches fourth- through sixth-grade art at Wilson Intermediate School in Pekin, Illinois.
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