My first three years were in a country school, in the beautiful Schoharie Valley of upstate New York. I became the sole teacher in a K-12 art program that was housed in a small one-room classroom. The student body was comprised of the children of farmers and local town folk; their artistic education was far from sophisticated. I saw a great challenge ahead of me and put my educational philosophy to the test. I believe a true artist can emerge from any situation, regardless of their slice in life. It was up to me to open their world to the great artworks of the past and the present. The superintendent that hired me was evidently very impressed. He agreed with what I wanted to accomplish with his students. He immediately purchased a new kiln for my classroom and let me begin. I taught ceramics along with all the other art disciplines, and became very intrigued with the possibilities of my high school students.
This new young group marched into my room with muscles, mustaches, tight skirts, high heels, and eager smiles. I pulled out the music box, put on the Rock, and we began to work. I taught them how to lay out slop, coil pots, roll out slabs, weigh out glaze chemicals, and stack kilns. We reviewed slides, looked through ceramic books and magazines and began the job of creating art. Their energy blossomed. I located an old motorized kick wheel and taught them how to throw. They learned the difference between functional pottery and the vessel and explored clay sculpture. Their work became refined and extremely creative. As their technical skills developed, their artistic awareness became more sophisticated. Fascinated, I watched these children execute the singular most exciting act a teacher is privileged to witness- a student's moment of decision. I watched them scrutinize their pieces, alter their forms, choose their palate of glazes-think, decide and create.
While teaching in the school during the day, I was also directing and teaching in a ceramics program at night in Troy, New York. This program merged the Troy Art Center with the Hudson Valley Community College’s Program in Contemporary Crafts. It fulfilled the educational needs of both the college and the community’s continuing adult education population. I organized field trips for my high school students to the evening studio. With the help of assistants, my high school students participated in raku and sawdust firings with college students and adults. They were so excited that we went back to school and built a simple sawdust kiln from an old garbage can, which we fired in the school’s athletic field. Their eyes glowed with anticipation and zeal upon each kiln unloading. With some enthusiastic support, my students became a part of the ceramic tradition.
I exhibited their work in various H.S. art competitions. They became award-winning students, competing against the best suburban schools both statewide and nationally. At art receptions they shyly stood beside their work with quiet dignity, as photographers flashed their cameras. Coming from a low-income community where the cultural opportunities were at a minimum, these children became serious art students. I fell in love with these Rock n' Rollin' teenagers. They showed me that fine artwork lies within the child as well as the adult, the poor as well as the affluent. Many times I have wondered why my life took the turn it did. I didn’t fully understand this until many years later. I have had a wonderful experience teaching ceramics to young people; I have also been in awe of their talent.
I left that country school and moved to a suburban school closer to home. In that new academically oriented district, I pursued my remaining years in public education. During that time there was much attention placed upon art in the New York State public educational system. With this focus on our young artists, an atmosphere of validity and recognition of their artwork followed.
New York developed a “Standards in Education” criterion, and art criticism was a major component of the assessment for the arts. As our students were decidedly college bound, our art department took this charge very seriously. I held formal critiques with my Beginning, Advanced and Independent Studies students in both my Ceramics and Sculpture classes. I had to establish my own criteria of evaluation that would not only satisfy the traditional model of art criticism that integrated line, color, shape, form, texture, space, rhythm and balance, but would also personalize the art of ceramics. Students were required to write critiques about the great artworks as well as each other’s pieces. They learned to self-critique and how to critique each other in both a positive and instructive manner. Critiques became an essential part of the art program, elevating our students to an increased level of awareness. They learned to change, grow and take risks, because after all, that is the essence of art. Mostly, they learned to achieve with knowledge and purpose.
One of the most critical issues I see in today’s educational environment is that the general public, and unfortunately many artists themselves, are undereducated in the history and appreciation of art. This lack of knowledge eventually creates an atmosphere of disinterest in the arts, a diminishing attendance to museums, and ultimately a dwindling intellectual population. In today’s economic climate, a growing number of our public schools’ educational curriculum have reduced their art programs in favor of an expansion in science, math and special needs. In some colleges, there lacks an emphasis towards mandatory art history courses for all art students. In specialized art programs, such as ceramics, there is modest funding for a course in ceramic history, so there too, is a void. As an adjunct, I now present ceramic history lectures at colleges and art centers. When I lecture, I compare the media of traditional artists and sculptors to that of ceramic artists, therefore, bridging the gap between the disciplines. I am oftentimes surprised at the lack of knowledge students have in the history of their art fields. When I toured European schools, I was amazed to discover how culture and art history courses are basic to their academic regime. Europeans are quite fluent in their country’s artistic heritage, and are proud to partake in discussions concerning art. When a society is knowledgeable about art, they tend to visit museums and galleries more regularly.
Ceramics has a magnificent heritage, spanning almost 30 thousand years of artistic triumph. It is the most primitive of all art forms. European Shamans were producing bone-fired clay Venus figurines in small beehive type kilns as early as 27,000 BCE (Before the Current Era). These lovely black carbon infused sculptures were the beginnings of our ceramic legacy, similar to the wildly colored images parading along prehistoric cave walls in 15,000 BCE that were ancestor to modern day painting. How magnificent were the vessels of ancient Greece, portraying the mythology and art of a culture on the surfaces of their ware? These vessels are significantly viewed as high art in Greece.
As a society we need to investigate who we were in order to fully appreciate who we are and to fantasize who we might become. The endless spiral of discovery is what congeals an art form that is rich in depth and mystery. The history of a culture is viewed through its art; the future of a culture’s art is built upon its history.
We need to convince our schools to continue offering ceramics with all the art courses in their curriculum; we should encourage our students to pursue these subjects as vital choices in their education. Every artist has a story; these stories are fundamental to our lives as we harvest the fragrant bouquet of knowledge and hold it close to our hearts. We must support and understand the arts so that in the stories of those that lived before us, we rise to a sense of brilliance and the pursuit of an intellectual society.