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Community Clay: Planning, Organizing, and Constructing a Ceramic Public Art Piece with Students

Students were divided into groups, some taking on mass production tasks, rough cutting multiple forms like the hands, faces, eyes and hearts shown above.

Since it’s back to school time, I thought I would try to give the teachers out there some ideas for ceramics projects for the coming year.


Today, artist Jan Brown Checco, who specializes in the design, planning and fabrication of community-based artwork, shares her insights into carrying out such projects with students. In particular, she highlights her experience working with 8 to 13-year-olds to create a community-based ceramic tile mosaic during a residency at a school in Cincinnati, Ohio. Even if you don’t use this post to plan a project of the same magnitude, there are great ideas to take away for smaller projects. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



Student sketches inspired the development of major features, like the windows and doors of the Dreambuilding cathedral.

Clay is a most adaptable and forgiving medium for community-based art. People of all ages can participate, learning while they playfully handle materials and tools. With a clear plan for how to produce and use thousands of unique small pieces, something surprisingly luxurious can be achieved. Clear planning was essential for Summit County Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio, during a seven-month residency creating art for the foyer of an ornate Gothic chapel. The order was a tall one: design and fabricate two 9 X 36-inch mosaic, donor panels to honor over 600 generous benefactors. Hundreds of engraved metallic nameplates would cover the finished surfaces, suggesting something of a Byzantine style. Divided into groups of five to twenty, more than 200 students attended my in-school ten-week workshop. The workshop was held in the timeframe of four art class periods each day, and assistants and apprentices worked during after-school hours. For many of the 8-13-year-old participants, this was their introduction to clay.


Designing for Participants

Careful planning and practical conceptual design means everything for such a project. We followed a Renaissance workshop model in which many participants fulfilled tasks appropriate to their skill levels. This created a sense of group responsibility and ownership, while maintaining a solid work ethic and high aesthetic standard. Small groups carried out complicated tasks and returned to the workshop more frequently than larger classes could.

For more great project ideas,
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Work Flow


To ensure harmonious production with so many participants, it’s essential to orchestrate the flow of people, which includes estimating skill levels and assigning realistic tasks. Everyone helped in some way, while the lead artist and assistants prepared materials and provided finishing touches during hours of low occupancy. When the workshop was full, progress hinged on providing brief and clear instructions about the tools to be used and the tasks to be fulfilled that day. Returning participants moved through stations of the workshop methodically, knowing where materials were waiting for them and always cleaning up at the end of their session. Exit surveys showed students truly appreciated the rational, organized layout of the workshop.


25-Minute Student Tasks


Students could make one 2-inch tile per session. Since they knew the center of each square tile would be covered with a metal donor nameplate, they created interesting edge designs with common objects such as screws, hairpins, keys and decorative buttons. Many students carved and engraved the clay in interesting ways. Student imagination was a precious resource, reflected in inventive silhouettes and high-relief work.



Conceptual design for the two panels “Dreambuilding” (left) and “Spirit of Generosity” (right) grew from an abundance of visual resources. The challenge was how to adapt high-art forms to simple shapes feasible for students. The gothic forms of The Summit’s chapel, photos from Notre Dame in Paris, and illuminations by twelfth-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen all influenced major features, patterns and details. Five different Cone 6 high-fire clays provided a natural color palette that matched the school’s architecture. Some colored slips were applied, and after bisquing, many tiles received multiple coats of commercial Cone 6 glazes, bringing to some tiles the appearance of semiprecious stones. Occasional retouching with acrylic paint brought all elements to harmony.

Breakdown of Tasks



Lead Artist

Phase 1: Concept and Proposal
• Negotiate contract
• Plan overall workshop
• Research design
• Develop conceptual design of artwork
• Compile final design documents
• Create full-sized patterns
• Create workshop schedule

Phase 2: Preparation
• Create models and samples
• Present history of mosaics slide lecture
• Present lecture about project’s design
• Select and direct assistants, apprentices
   and carpenter
• Assign all tasks
• Setup workshop

Phase 3: Implementation
• Train participants
• Create daily assignments
• Reconfigure workshop as
   project proceeds
• Create most complex forms
• Layout elements for attachment
• Direct installation of art
• Coordinate name plates
• Prepare project reports


Smaller Groups

• Assemble multiple complex forms (requires 
  multiple visits to the workshop)
• Create small detailed elements (requires more
  advanced skills)
Student Apprentices
• Daily quality control of all student-
   generated work
• Apply slip and glaze
• Fabricate special tiles for borders

Workshop Assistants

• Roll out clay slabs
• Refine materials prepared before and after
   student work
• Transfer patterns to plywood forms
• Carve selected detailed elements
• Create multiple architectural elements
• Load and unload kiln
• Adhere tiles to forms

For more information on Jan Brown Checco, visit www.brownchecco.com.



For more tile and mosaic projects be sure to download your free copy of How to Design, Make and Install Ceramic Tile Murals and Mosaics: Design Tips and How-To Instructions for Handmade Ceramic Tile Projects.