Animal Effigy Pots
Ann, founder of Starbrick Clay on the Historic Nelsonville Square, has found that for beginners of all ages, she likes infallible projects – ones that will stimulate their imagination and give an endless opportunity for originality within a fail-proof structure. While participants are having fun, they are also learning the technical aspects of working with clay. She uses all the proper terminology so that students know they have to score to join parts. That the piece gets fired in a kiln, not cooked in an oven-thing!
The Animal Effigy Pots were based on the Mound builders effigy bowls that were a prolific artistic expression for this culture as were animal effigy pipes and jewelry. Ann felt this would make a personal connection while learning about this mysterious civilization that lived right here, where these children live now. The possibilities were discussed that maybe a thousand years from now, some other people may dig up their own ceramic creations, and try to guess what they were trying to convey with these pieces. Each child chose an animal that they liked, but they also expressed how the animal was symbolic for aspects of their personalities, how the animal could be a representation for a part of their lives, or be a symbol of something they dearly love-a pet, a wish, or a memory.
The project was introduced with a PowerPoint presentation of the Mound builder’s society and discussion of the superb works of art by these expressive people. Symbolism and various aspects of animal characteristics was explored. Then the children were asked to first sketch out their plan for their animal choice which included drawing in the shape of the pot. They were asked to choose a function for their pot and include this in their design. (EX: a cookie jar would need a lid) This allowed Ann to know what vessel each child should build to incorporate the style of animal they chose. The Mound builders’ examples were almost all open bowls and many chose this method. But many more were ambitious and wanted to try the lids, as their drawings included fat bodies with heads that sat on top. Each child was encouraged to try exactly what they sketched and intended, and most children didn’t have an inkling that what they were attempting could be very tricky—they just went ahead and did it anyway—much to Ann’s surprise and delight!
Many students will hold back if something appears too complex, so Ann breaks up the construction process into small, easy to conquer steps so that each student can make their own way, in their own time, in baby steps. It can be very frustrating to generate something from nothing-a lump of clay! No, first the lump becomes a ball, and then the ball is opened and pinched into a bowl shape. Body parts are made separate and various positions tried before joining to the body. For most, this is an entirely new experience…but clay is so forgiving. It is easy to start again if not satisfied with first attempts. It is easy to smooth, tug or even push an expression into the clay.
Day 2 involved learning the basic vessel construction. Almost all chose to make a pinch pot and many chose to make 2 pinch pots, one for a lid. Some of the returning campers remembered how to roll out slabs and made a taller vessel using this method. All learned how to score the clay and join pieces so that they did not come off in the firing. Many started adding legs, tails and surface patterns. They used inventive textures to represent fur or scales.
The 3rd day was for the head and face, plus all the finishing touches that made the sculptures come alive. Children are very attentive to proposals of reality, for example making the eyes look more authentic. Ann demonstrates how to make an eye socket first, placing an eyeball into the socket, and fixing in place with eyelids. The children were bursting with admiration for their own and each others work as they discovered their animals’ charm and expression. What fun they had pressing the face into a look of surprise or scary ferocity!
The last day was for glazing the piece with underglazes. They were advised of the fragility of the unfired clay and carefully glazed the piece on a board that they turned so they would not have to lift the piece and risk damaging it. It was surprising to see how many children chose to paint their sculptures in a realistic fashion, even though they were encouraged to have a blue dog or a pink elephant. Perhaps the use of realism can be attributed to two things. For some it seemed to be the safe bet, to make it look more realistic and have some control of the process. For others, their home world is very factual, the animal says something important about their lives and the only authentic solution is to keep it real in their hearts. An expressive connection is made. In the end, each child was delighted with the creation made by their own hands.