Around the World in Clay – and Back to the Americas!

I can’t think of anything more challenging than middle school. Here at Clay Art Center we offer programming for ages 3-99 and I can pinpoint the exact age that this outreach becomes a struggle-thirteen! There is so much to combat with as children grow into teens while discovering their independence (and dependence) on friends, family and the world around them. I think any middle school teacher should be given a presidential commendation-no questions asked! So when we began to plan for our grant-funded, year-long, after school program at the middle school we wanted to offer our 6th grade students the chance to test this new independence and see a new world with fresh eyes.

The “Around the World in Clay” program, supported by the generosity of the Common Sense fund, is an intensive ceramic arts program that blends elements of art history and anthropology to show students global cultures through the lens of a ceramic artist. It is a fun and exciting adventure and one that both high school and middle school students clamor to take each year. The program, now in its fifth year, has evolved to bring in renowned visiting artists, trips to cultural institutions and paid internships and job training for older students. It is incredible and life-changing attested to by our first round of students who joined us as freshman and are now completing another freshmen year in college. For some of them it changed their paths entirely, making them consider local colleges, teaching degrees, or even pursuing art school.

So this year we leveled up, for a class that is about broadening perspectives and offering new paths, we wanted to take the classroom outside. And so this past weekend we trucked some of our middle school students to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to see an incredibly apropos exhibition called “Ceramica de los Ancestros”. While this sounds like a natural link, it involved taking our 6th graders on Metro North (without parents) and into grand central station to catch the five train. And boy that is where the adventure started. I marveled at the energy of the the group, who barely took a breath from Port Chester station to Grand Central. We made it safely, though rather disheveled, to the museum and opened the doors to Central America more than 2,000 years ago.

The native ceramics of Panama, Costa Rica and what is now Nicaragua showed us bright and active cultures. Students were able to think about their cultural heritage in a way that they never had while seeing how ceramics has captured a picture of village life long before the written word.

We looked at different vessels trying to see their purpose as well as trying to demystify some of the symbols. I am still having nightmares about the expressive rendering of the centipede celebrated in ancient Panamanian cultures.

We also watched a short film about how modern day students are being trained in their home countries in archaeological studies, so that the history of their country can be discovered and cared for by it’s own people.

While the constant (and exhausting) chatter continued throughout the museum (even while looking at a pair of gruesome ceramic vessels depicting sacrificed human heads) the students came to an abrupt hush when the drawing boards appeared. Students took paper and charcoal pencils and camped out in front of their favorite pieces to sketch. It was like a spell had been cast, they became focused and introspective, some had to be coaxed to leave the museum by their friends when lunch time came around.

It was an amazing day, and one that surprised me in many ways. I am excited to visit their classroom back at Clay Art Center and see how teaching artist Denis Licul guides this recent exploration of ancient cultures and how students will relate to these past peoples through new artwork. It reminds me of the expression “everything old is new again” and how true it is when you are looking at young faces filled with awe and wonder! May it live on!

By Ariel Edwards, Clay Art Center Community Arts Director