One of the most common obstacles faced by high school ceramic teachers is how to get students beyond their first idea and to think creatively to develop deeper, personally meaningful content in their work. I design comprehensive ceramics units drawing from the abundance of creative, personally relevant work being produced by contemporary ceramic artists. These units show students the strategies that contemporary artists use when approaching the conceptual process, studio practice and expressive content. Students can then take what they learn through these examples to make more creative connections to their own culture and selves as they solve visual art challenges in their work.
Planning a Unit
The planning process begins by selecting an artwork by a contemporary or historical ceramic artist based on its teachable qualities, including ones like media, style, technique, theme, and less tangible things like context in history and aesthetic qualities. I write down everything I think the students can learn from studying the artwork, as well as pertinent information about the artist. The teachable qualities listed above then become the guide for an informational, technical, and creative journey as the unit unfolds.
My research for the unit is also directed by California’s State Visual Art Content Standards, which describe what students should know and be able to do at different grade levels. Using the teachable qualities, I look at how the standards can be applied and assessed through the unit. The structure of the standards help to create a comprehensive unit by dividing curriculum into areas (called “strands”) such as Artistic Perception, Creative Expression, Historical and Cultural Context and Aesthetic Valuing.
The following example of Andrea Gill’s work illustrates my preliminary study of an object through the preparation and creation of a unit (see visual description below).
Andrea Gill constructed Crewelwork by using slabs pressed into or around molds. She assembled the basic form after the slabs stiffened to leather hard, and added wing-like attachments to build complexity and add volume. She then decorated the vessel with a majolica glaze technique and slip designs inspired by nature, Japanese designs, fabrics and a historical text called the Grammar of Ornament. In this work, Andrea Gill found inspiration in old embroidery books. Crewel work is a decorative form of surface embroidery using wool and a variety of different embroidery stitches. The main reference to the title is in the section just left of center that contains the needle-and-wool looped thread motif.
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The information gathered and descriptions lead to certain points of emphasis for each unit within the curriculum areas, as follows:
1. Artistic Perception Learning Activity
A student’s ability to describe what they see in a ceramic object is critical to the development of a common language between artists. It gives them a specialized vocabulary that helps them describe what they’re seeing and improves their visual literacy.
Returning to our example, a “teachable quality” for this unit becomes the exploration of the principles of design (balance, emphasis, contrast, movement, pattern and unity) and how Andrea Gill applies them to her pieces. Many of the principles can be found in her work, which allows for a rich variety in the discussion. This activity takes place as small group critiques and discussions of projected digital images of the artist’s work. The exploration of how Gill applies the principles gets the students thinking about how they’ll use the principles in their vessel.
Learning Experience and Objectives:
2. Historical and Cultural Context Learning Activity
Pots echo pots, in this case the 16th century majolica wares that got into Andrea Gill’s mind are clearly echoed in the work. Educating students about the historic significance of ceramics and how artists today are influenced and often guided by history helps them develop their own work and understand how and why other pieces were made.
The history becomes the second “teachable quality” of the unit. The activity has students examining the historical significance of majolica. The activity unfolds a little at a time throughout the unit, starting with a talk about the European intent to copy porcelain, but not having the necessary raw materials to do it. They are then exposed to 16th century wares and begin comparing and contrasting them with Gill’s work. We look at the forms being built and the types of imagery glazed on the surface.
Learning Experience and Objectives:
3. Aesthetic Valuing Learning Activity
For high school students, understanding aesthetics and assessing the success or failure of a piece is a daunting, often fruitless task. “I like it,” or “it looks cool” are the normal responses when asked to share their thoughts on a piece. Their ability to analyze a piece’s aesthetic qualities greatly improves when they read an artist’s statement, which explains the intent of the work in the artist’s own words and gives them an access point as well as a base to build upon. After the students examine that documentation, I define aesthetic filters or lenses to look at the work through. These filters help to focus the conversation on one idea in the work.
For this unit, I use formalism as the filter. I define formalism as looking at how the artist successfully applied the elements of art and principles of design in their work. Students consider Gill’s design intent compared to the finished piece. The activity takes place in a short position paper that they write and share with another classmate. The paper focuses on why the work is or isn’t successful and why. A short debate/discussion takes place so that they can practice talking about the aesthetics of artwork.
Learning Experience and Objectives
4. Creative Expression Learning Activity
This is what the kids live for! After seeing many of Gill’s works and completing some of the activities mentioned above, we examine workshop photos of how Andrea Gill assembles her vessels. We look at the plaster molds we have and consider molds we can make from simple objects around the studio. Then the students start sketching. The molds strongly influence the sketches of their forms. Slabs are rolled out and draped or wrapped around forms until they are stiff enough to assemble. On the same day (to prevent cracking from joining pieces that have different moisture content, I have the students roll out and store flat slabs that will become the “wings” on their vessels. Once assembled, we dry them very slowly, then bisque fire them.
The student’s attention then switches to the design motifs. I ask students to look around their environment—their rooms, home and neighborhood—to find objects that can be stylized into simple design motifs and to either take digital pictures or bring them in to class. We discuss the way Andrea Gill interprets stylized imagery, which she describes as taking imagery and changing, simplifying and abstracting it to your liking. We review her sources and strategies for stylizing them. Students come up with five different design motifs in colored pencil, then apply them to a drawing of their form. They focus on applying principles of design to their work and create one area on the vessel that dominates the design. After their vessel is bisque fired, they apply an opaque low-fire white glaze. We use Mayco’s Cloud White. When the glaze is dry, they draw their designs lightly in pencil on the pot and begin applying underglazes; in our studio we have Duncan’s Concepts underglazes. I found this combination of contemporary materials mimics majolica techniques very well and it is safe for the classroom. The end results tend to be a kaleidoscope of the students visual culture and environmental imagery.
Learning Experience and Objectives
A Final Word
This type of planning yields far better results than teaching ceramics based solely on technique. I’m a strong believer in teaching the students why we make ceramic objects with as much importance as how we build them.
Keith Brockie is department chair and teaches ceramics at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino. He’s also an adjunct professor at California State University San Bernardino.