COVID-19 made this year particularly challenging for all students and educators since schools spent most of the year engaged in distance learning. We at the SNAP program stepped up to the challenge and modified our entire curricula to better accommodate students enrolled in our program.
The first modification was to simplify in terms of materials used for the art projects. We designed all of the art projects around using earth clay and underglaze. Since students were working mostly at home, this made it easier to put together individual kits because all classes would be using the same basic supplies. None of the schools we work with have working kilns, and so ceramics is something special that they wouldn’t typically have a chance to do. As a highly tactile substance, clay also has therapeutic qualities, which we hoped would benefit students undergoing stress during quarantine.
Since clay is a versatile material, it was easy to come up with a wide range of projects that complemented the various science curricula. Art projects were designed for four different science units:
Heat and Heat Technology Unit
In this unit, students learned about the many physical changes clay goes through when it is fired, including what conditions produce the plastic state, what happens when it becomes bone dry, and what happens during the vitrification during the firing process. They learned that these changes occur gradually, with the clay reaching varying states at different temperatures, depending on the types of clay being used.
For one art project, students enrolled in this unit learned about and created a model of a Zeer Pot. A Zeer pot is an evaporative cooler often used in rural Africa and the Middle East to keep food cool and fresher longer. One terrcotta pot is nested inside a larger one with a layer of wet sand filling the gap between them. The pot is then placed in a shaded location with a breeze. The evaporation of water off the outer surface chills the inside of the smaller pot. Students watched a short video about Muhammed Bah Abba, an African engineer and entrepreneur who developed a simple zeer pot that local potters could make and sell to villagers and farmers who had no access to modern refrigeration systems.
For another art project associated with this unit, students made figures of warm or cold blooded animals. This provided an opportunity to science educators to talk about heat transfer as it related to cold blooded animals that sunbathe or engage in certain behaviors to conserve or absorb heat, compared to warm blooded animals whose bodies generate their own heat.
Landforms and Geologic Time Unit
Students enrolled in this unit first looked at the ceramic pots of Alan Spencer, a field geologist and professional artist. Spencer’s series of ceramic pots called Strata In Clay illustrate various geological epochs, referencing the fossil record, erosion, and layers.
Students began the hands-on portion making coil pots. This is when coils of clay are formed and then attached to each other using scratching and adding water to form slip. Coils can be left as coil or smoothed over after they are built up.
For this unit, students also created clay dinosaurs and tiles that they added texture to by pressing in shells. The textures and shapes of the shells will be preserved in the clay in a similar way to how fossils are preserved in layers of strata for scientists to discover.
Students turned their projects in to SNAP educators in one state, then received them back transformed to an entirely different state – slightly shrunk, but more durable, and with a surface that was brightly colored, smooth, and shiny from the glazing and firing. This was used to address how different materials provide different types of evidence of the past for geologists and other scientists. Some types of rock and soil erode more quickly that others. Some materials capture many fossils, while others capture none. Geologists must have an understanding of the materials making up the layers of strata in order to interpret that is found and make their best educated guesses about what is missing.
Property of Matter Unit
Students enrolled in this unit focused their understanding on the differing qualities of clay in its various stages: greenware, bisqueware, and glazeware. They also learned about different types of clay and minerals that are often found or deliberately added to clay for different reasons.
For this unit, students also learned about the history of traditional Face Vessels created by enslaved African Americans, such as the renowned David Drake (also known as Dave the Potter.) These pots had sculpted, expressive faces. Students first looked at examples of such works in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then were encouraged to make their own face vessels that included exaggerated features and color choices that expressed emotion.
This unit focused most on how artists have used clay when making work inspired by genetics discoveries. Students looked at art inspired by the double helix – Franco Castelluccio’s large-scale sculpture Double Helix – Mutation of Increased Compassion, and also Ibrahim Said’s vessel also titled Double Helix – then went on to make their own works that incorporated clay braids and coils. Students also looked at abstract art inspired by the process of mitosis – Brendan Dugan and Katherine Dube – then made similar works of pinch pots with multiple sections.
Students at Morris Elementary were studying bees as part of their genetics unit, and so they also sculpted ceramic bee baths. This unit finished up with students learning about the mass extinction of North American megafauna at the end of the last Ice Age, and sculpting wooly mammoths.
Even though students couldn’t go on field trips this year, we included just as many virtual field trips to the Wagner and the LaSalle University Art Museum. During these programs the students enjoyed live interactive presentations by museum educators that were relevant to their science curricula and art projects.
One ceramic artist students were excited to learn about was Roberto Lugo. Lugo is of Puerto Rican ancestry and grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia. Through his art and activism he aims to address issues of economic and racial disparity and helps bring more artistic opportunities to at-risk youth.