[Clayart] Clay programs - toxic materials

Snail Scott claywork at flying-snail.com
Thu Aug 22 15:20:25 EDT 2019

> On Aug 21, 2019, at 9:12 PM, Rick Mahaffey <rickmahaffey at COMCAST.NET> wrote:
> That dean in the Armani was slow,  if he had a clay program that was all sculpture he could have gotten rid of that sooner.  If your clay program is only sculpture beware.  Those clay programs are redundant sculpture programs.  When you have traditional sculpture and a clay sculpture program at the same school the clay program is vulnerable to being closed…

These are valid thoughts, and worth considering. Art has always been an awkward fit within the academic model, and functional craft is even tougher to find an academic justification for. I’m far from certain (as Vince knows...old debate) that is is best taught within a college program anyway. Craftsmanship, on the other hand, is essential to almost every academic endeavor - from good laboratory protocols, to developing research methods, to correct English grammar.

As my university's sole instructor in both ceramics and sculpture, I have a rare opportunity to both think and act on the relationship between these areas. I do not presently teach a pottery-based program, as that seems to dovetail poorly with the overall emphasis of the art program as it stands. We don’t offer a 3-D emphasis, so I need to consider how the 3-D curriculum can support and expand the work that the students can expect to do professionally, regardless of their eventual career specialty.  

Since we do not currently offer 3-D design, I treat the sculpture course as a general intro to dimensional art, dealing with formal issues, but also issues of material (considering structural and practical properties, aesthetic properties, and associated meaning), process: subtractive (carving), additive (tools, fasteners, and adhesives) modeling, and basic moldmaking), content, and context (viewer, presentation, scale, social/political/historical/geographical/etc issues, etc.)  All of these are things that are relevant to ceramics as well. When I teach ceramics, I approach it as as though it is a ‘special topics in sculpture’ class. I touch on the previous topics only lightly to avoid redundancy, but go deep on skills, on the technical aspects of the material, and its broad applicability to various forms of art.  Although the entire department has had massive course cuts, including my area, I never lack a waiting list for ceramics.  

This is what will keep it alive: student demand. When they see relevance and applicability, they want more. They learn specifics of clay, but also new applications for their existing knowledge base, and a sense of professional possibilities. Students are currently demanding useful skills, and conceptual education without the skills to manifest those ideas is looking less relevant all the time. The art majors appreciate the blend of ideas and practical knowledge. The non-majors make up about half my students, though - a larger percentage than for my sculpture classes - and they love the hands-on, tactile relationship with tangible things: real objects that they, themselves, have made happen. They also love function. We have a large graphic design program, and I present the functional assignment as a design problem in three dimensions: function, aesthetics, ergonomics, appropriate materials and processes, logistics, and more. As I said, I don’t run a pottery-oriented program, but I do allow pottery as an option within functional design, and address it as component of the course. And it is wildly popular! 

Many of my foreign-exchange students come from countries where university students have had to focus intensively on academics to the detriment of all else in their lives - they never even had ‘yellow-plus-blue-makes-green’ in primary school, and making things is what poor people do. Handling materials directly is a revelation to them, and their enthusiasm is palpable.

The idea of a thing that justifies the space it occupies resonates with pretty much all of my students. Some don’t want to give houseroom to ‘useless things’, while others love the idea of something that gets handled and interacted with on an intimate daily basis. Pottery seems like a bad fit for the overall focus of my program, but it adds value to what we do nonetheless. 

There is a possibility, presently, that our program may move toward an industrial design emphasis. If so, (and I support the idea), the concept of craftsmanship - not just handwork but developing manufacturing models based on an understanding of process and properties of materials - will become even more essential. Ceramics education isn’t just about making pots (or useless fine art, either.) It’s a way to directly and effectively teach a mindset of design which acknowledges the interrelationship of material properties, structure, aesthetics, and process, all in service of a physical goal.

Snail Scott
claywork at flying-snail.com

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