A curriculum for mixed-age elementary grades by Dan Harper
Copyright (c) 2015 Dan Harper
The Potter is a popular artisan. What could be more fun than playing with clay? And Potters were integral to the village, for they provided the vessels needed for carrying water, for storing grain and other food, for cooking and eating utensils, etc.
— Air-dry clay — we buy Crayola brand at our nearby Michael’s crafts store
— Boards for making projects on — our boards are 8 inches squares cut out of 1/2 ” plywood
— Tools for working with clay — you can buy sculptor’s tools at an art supply store, or simply use ordinary stainless steel flatware; note that some kind of small rolling pins are very satisfying for the children to work with
— Dishes with small amounts of water — used to make slip
In the photo above, you can see one sample project: a low pot with fancy handles. Air-dry clay is not good for making big projects, as the clay slumps rather easily. Also, air-dry clay is not particularly strong — the handles on the above pot have already broken off in one place.
So keep your expectations low — literally low, because due to the nature of the clay it is quite difficult to make a pot that is more than a couple of inches high. Our Potters have emphasized process: rolling clay out, building low pinch pots, building plates using slab and coils, incising designs on the clay. And think small — the 8 inch square boards help the children think small, by keeping their projects under 8 inches.
Start with a lump of clay about as big as a child’s fist. Mush it together so it is compact and has no air bubbles. To start the hole, stick your thumb in the lump of clay. That’s your basic pot, except the walls are way too thick! So work around and around the edges of the pot, pinching as you go, until you have relatively thin walls.
Once you have the shape of the pot the way you want it, you can refine the design. Trim the top edge with a table knife so it’s smooth. Incise a pleasant design on the side of the pot (or even inside the pot).
If you want to add clay ornamentation to the pot, here’s what to do: Make the ornament; wet the clay of the pot where the ornament is going to be stuck on, and rub the wet spot with your finger so that you build up a layer of “slip” or wet clay slurry; score the wet place lightly, and rub the slip into the score marks; stick the ornament on. Alternatively, if the clay is still pretty fresh (not dried out), just stick on the ornmanet and hope for the best.
Slab and coil plates:
A simple but fun project. Roll out a slab of clay. Cut it into a circle. Roll a “worm” of clay about as big as your little finger. West and score the edge of the circular slab as detailed above. Coil this “worm” of clay around the edge of the circular slab, and press it into place. Now smooth the inside of the plate so that it slopes up smoothly. Do the same to the outside.
This kind of project provides a good surface for making an incised design. If you make the plate larger than about 6 inches in diameter, the air-dry clay may crack when it dries and you try to pick the plate up (air-dry clay is not very strong).
Cultural and religious significance:
Potters appear in several places in the Hebrew Bible. In a few places, potters are used as a metaphor of the God of the Israelites, who has the power to mold our lives as the potter molds clay. Take, for example, this passage in Isaiah 63.6-12:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”
The situation is one where things are not going well for the Israelites. So Isaiah the prophet is appealing to the God of the Israelites, apologizing for the evil deeds perpetrated by his generation, and offering to let himself and his people be molded into a better shape by the God of the Israelites. From the point of view of a village potter, this is a very affirming image — hey, even us village potters, we who make the most prosaic pots for everyday use, are in some sense like our God!
However, this passage, from Lamentation 4.1-2, is less complimentary to potters:
“How the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! The sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street. The precious children of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold — how they are reckoned as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands!”
This passage is a kind of put-down of the children of Zion. The children of Zion, who should be like vessels made out of gold, are instead nothing better than those everyday pots made by village potters. No doubt the village potters would prefer to ignore this part of the Hebrew Bible.
[All Bible passages from the New Revised Standard Version.]