Thursday, October 22, 2009



The concept of the apprentice goes far back into the annals of history. The most notable apprenticeship system was created during the Middle Ages. Some of those systems used the term journeyman, but the concept was the same; a young person would work alongside an experienced craftsman/artist as an assistant. Many times there was no financial exchange for the apprentice, only the ability to gain knowledge and expertise working in the Master’s shop. The goals for the apprentice were to one day begin a shop of their own. There were many kinds of agreements; each one was based upon the notoriety of the Master, his wealth and patron base. As the apprentice system evolved, the ability for a young person to work for a renowned Master became an honor for the family. This child’s livelihood would basically be guaranteed. These apprenticeships occurred all over the world, in China, Japan, Europe, the Middle East and the Native Americans in the New World. In Renaissance Italy, the Masters’ workshops were filled with apprentices, oftentimes taking care of all the tools, canvasses, mixing paints for painters, beginning the preliminary cuts for the sculptors, maintaining the sharpness of chisels and mixing clay and glazes for the potters. The experienced apprentices created much of the work in these shops. Oftentimes a sculpture was produced in Rodin’s studio where his most famous assistant, Camille Claudel, would oftentimes sculpt the hands and feet and then Rodin completed the remaining piece. Sometimes paintings were attributed to a famous Master’s workshop, and not the Master himself.

Many versions of the apprentice system have evolved in the modern art world. In ceramic studios, the apprentice has become the backbone of the studio. In all my adult ceramic programs, I had several apprentices, or assistants. They would have total access to the studio, clay, glazes and kilns. For this, they would maintain the studio, lay out and bag slop, mix glazes, load, fire and unload kilns, keep the studio clean and maintain the inventory. Because of the vitality of my programs, I always had plenty of apprentices. They became an important part of the program and offered a great deal to the students. I had the assistant work alongside me in class, so if I was busy with a student, another student had access to my assistant. I kept my assistants on a tight leash; I critiqued their work weekly. The formal critique was the most important part of their education. I took this part of the job seriously, gave them a great deal of respect and treated them professionally. I had them report to me continually on the status of supplies, kiln firings, student needs, etc. It was a Win Win relationship. If my standards were not met, I would discontinue the relationship. They always had the option to stay on as a paying student. There actually were a couple of people that were unable to maintain this rigorous apprenticeship and dropped out. One of them became a student and another one came back later on when his life was in a more conducive situation for working with me.

Due to such a positive experience with my Adult Education apprentices, when the opportunity arose in my public school ceramic and sculpture programs, I utilized the apprenticeship philosophy in the guise of the school’s Independent Student program.

In my high school, I taught Ceramics I, Ceramics II and Sculpture. Each course was a yearlong class in the Studio Arts curriculum. After a student completed Ceramic II, there were no other ceramic courses available. Sometimes these students were with me as sophomores and juniors. They still had open time in their senior year schedule and were most anxious to continue working in ceramics. During their freshman year they had to take a foundation level art course before they began their concentration. We had a three dimensional Course of Study, which included Foundations, Ceramics I, Ceramics II and Sculpture. Fortunately in my school we had an Independent Study course that was sanctioned by each of the disciplines. It had to be accepted by a teacher on a volunteer basis, as that teacher would have to meet their student during his/her free periods. The student, approved by the teacher, department chair and the principal, would develop a course of study. Because I had so many Independent students, between five and six annually, I instituted the apprenticeship concept into my angle of the program. I maintained that a student could only take an Independent course with me if they had their free period coincide with one of my classes. Being seniors, they oftentimes had the flexibility to accomplish this. For each of my ceramic and sculpture classes, I usually had between one and two Independent students working with me. It became an incredible bonus to my entire program!

First of all, I had help. I had the Independent students, which I now called the assistants, load and unload some of the kilns, lay out slop and mix glazes. Since all my ceramic students laid out slop and mixed glazes, it gave me the opportunity to have my Independent students, the assistants, mix and fire glaze tests. They maintained glaze notebooks, made test tiles, and documented their results. What an incredible contribution they gave to my program, and what amazing work they gained in their ceramic studies.

Personally, as a ceramist, how wonderful it was to be working full time at a job and still have the ability to develop glazes! When we were really overloaded with work, they helped mix more glazes (they became very fast and reliable in this endeavor), and helped with the constant loading and unloading of kilns. They would also work with the students. They had special considerations; they were permitted to produce larger and more individual projects and work in the studio as much as they were able to. They became the envy of all my students, thus promoting the Independent Study Program. I met with them during quiet times, my free periods or even sat with them in my office while I ate lunch and listened to their concerns, critiqued their work and guided them in developing projects. They worked very hard; they kept me working even harder.

I wrote many recommendations to the colleges with the best ceramic programs in the country for my students, and have the joy in finding out how many of them have gone on to be art teachers, college professors, and studio ceramists. After many years of retirement, I still get emails and even visits from former students. Two of my former students are presently art teachers in the school district in which I worked.

Apprentices, assistants and independent learners are all avenues for concentrating your teaching techniques, artistic philosophies and professional dynamism. Working with these students, on all age levels enhances any art program and enables the teacher to be more explorative. It allows the students to not only be more creative, but to establish an actual sense of the ceramic field in all its components and realistically see if this type of work is suitable to the person.

My apprentices, assistants and independent learners made me a better teacher. Not only did I work very hard at my profession, I enjoyed a most incredible period of my career.

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