There are many types of classroom situations. The important thing to realize is that you can incorporate ceramics into any art program as long as you are organized.
The most challenging classroom setting I had was the “one room art room” I taught for three years in a school district where I was the only art teacher for grades K-12. The student body was comprised of children of farmers. Their artistic education was limited and far from sophisticated. It was up to me to open their world to the great artworks of the past and the present. Through my efforts, these eager children soon made beautiful artwork that became refined and extremely creative. Ceramics began to take over their lives and with some enthusiastic support; my students entered the ceramic world.
There were many times later on that I thought about that teaching situation. All the instruction took place in one room. The classes came at different times, but all storage, supplies, and curriculum were held in that one small space. When I taught ceramics, my third graders made coiled and pinched engobe decorated pots; my high school students produced glazed stoneware vessels and wall murals. The key to this madness was organization. The room was compartmentalized; all the materials were in separate areas on shelves lining the room. In the middle of the room I put all the tables together to create one long worktable. It took some effort to deal with discipline, but eventually the kids learned how to work in a group setting. I created “stations”-a place where the supplies for a particular media were housed. I organized my curriculum so that when I taught painting, I taught it to the elementary as well as the secondary students. When I changed media, I put supplies away, bringing out the new project materials. I created a darkroom in a closet lined with black plastic. In that small space I taught pinhole photography to the younger students, and with one enlarger, taught black and white photography to the high school students. Every situation was manageable. Prepare the site, limit your supplies, and organize your curriculum for all grade levels, each one pursuing a deeper level of concentration.
While I was developing my public school program, I was also developing a ceramic adult learner program at a local art center. Several years prior, I had established a ceramic school in Albany, NY with a partner. Within one short summer, we had built shelves and work tables, purchased an entire studio of used wheels and kilns, put in a beautiful ceramic gallery, fund raised, advertised and by autumn, opened our doors to a fully attended ceramic school. Classes and specialized workshops began and I was very happy. However, foolish, young and trusting, I neglected to begin this venture with the advise of a lawyer; before long my partner usurped total ownership and I was out of a school! What was at first a major loss soon became a wonderful beginning to the next phase of my career. I no longer had that school, but my reputation was established in the area, and I was sought after by the Rensselaer County Council on the Arts, now known as The Art Center in Troy, NY. I was hired to develop a new ceramic program. The art center was joining forces with a two-year junior college to create an associate’s degree in the Program in Contemporary Crafts. This exciting joint venture was happening throughout the country; art centers and museums were coordinating their programs with local community colleges, sharing facilities and expanding their offerings. I began teaching this program in the art center which was housed in the basement of a gorgeous old historic mansion. This program was being developed for a thriving capital region, thirsty for access to art classes. My course load was initially small; I had six students, a few old wheels, two very old and weary kilns, some rolling pins and shelving. This was truly a challenge; it wasn’t much, but it was enough to begin! The timing was perfect- along with the Art Center’s adult population; the college would use these studios for their fledgling undergraduate craft’s degree program. Money was very quickly procured and I started ordering equipment and supplies. I gutted the old kilns and put them in the backyard and created a Raku program. By that time I had developed a strong cone 6-oxidation glaze palette, and with new L & L electric kilns and Brent wheels, we began producing beautiful glazed work in porcelain, terracotta, stoneware and Raku. We increased enrollment and quickly outgrew the studio. We had to go somewhere. Fortunately our clay distributor, Northeast Ceramics, had a vacant second floor in his warehouse and with his gracious and dedicated community spirit, the Art Center moved their ceramic studio into this very large warehouse space. We collected more equipment and grew into a full ceramic program. After twelve years of running this program, I decided to retire from nighttime teaching. By the time I left, we had several studio assistants and teachers, a studio filled with wheels, extruders, slab rolling machines, large worktables and endless shelving. Before I left, our staff developed the district’s first potter’s cooperative. The Co-op shared the main studio space when classes were not in session, maintaining many privately rented spaces. The potters brought in their personal equipment and soon evolved the Co-op into a thriving guild. A few years after I left, the Art Center accomplished some major fundraising and opened their doors to a stunning, upscale art center. This beautiful new facility offered extensive programs in crafts and the fine arts, a black box theater, dance studios, galleries and outreach programs. The warehouse ceramic program moved into this new state of the art studio with an array of ceramic courses, teachers and opportunities. So you see, because I was willing to work with a small program of six students, fifteen years later and a magnificent vision, a superb program in ceramics was firmly entrenched into a regional art scene.
One thing I learned from all these changes was that while equipment, studios and enrollment were always moving forward, the quality of the programs was always constant. Art is art, and it can be created anywhere. I remember reading in a biography of Shoji Hamada, that during a period in his life he had no studio and basically worked in a closet. Quality, studio size and equipment do not produce art; the devotion and discipline in creating quality art is the essential component for creating beauty.