Oglethorpe Clay Cluster

What, you may ask, is that?

It turns out that in this age of underfunding public schools and drastic cutbacks in curricula and extracurricular support one of our local Athens elementary schools has developed this innovative program in which parents are asked to volunteer their time and interest in shepherding a group of students for an hour once a week in special events and projects outside the normal curriculum. The result is not simply more of the same, but an eclectic blend of interests and skills from the everyday lives of these parents and teachers. Very non-‘No Child Left Behind’. Its not on the test. Instead, what is being offered is an opportunity for kids to do some interesting investigations of their world that the school system can’t afford on its own and which might not always fit under the strict interpretations of classroom education.

For instance, there is a cluster run by a professional hair stylist where 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders get to (presumably) engage in the activities of hair styling. (I’ll let your imagination run with that). There is also a yoga cluster, a zumba cluster, a music cluster, a running cluster, a mythology cluster, a drawing cluster, an inventions cluster, a cluster my neighbor teaches on creative writing, and a number of other equally interesting traditional and nontraditional classroom activities. The one I helped out with was the clay cluster. The school has no real clay facility of their own, so it relies on the materials and facilities of the parent responsible for the cluster and outside volunteers to make it happen.

When my friend Julie asked me if I could come talk to the kids in her cluster I was delighted to help. I was also nervous. My days of teaching kids clay camps had always been rewarding but also draining. I was not sure exactly what I’d be in store for, but this was not so much their normal hands on class as it was an opportunity for the students to meet someone who makes a living doing things with clay. That meant I had to stand up for an hour and entertain a group of about a dozen mostly third graders. Yikes!

It turns out my worries were all misplaced, and the kids themselves were awesome. I brought a bunch of my own pots and pots from my collection to talk about and we jumped right in discussing the things you can make with clay, what glazes are, where clay comes from, how hot a kiln has to be to turn raw clay into permanent shapes, and what you can use pottery for. I also asked them to tell me what imagination was, what you can do with it, and what its good for. There were some great and thoughtful answers! I also asked them what things they did with their own imagination, and then we discussed what role imagination plays in the careers of doctors, baseball players, veterinarians, authors and other professionals they might one day aspire to be.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning of this blog you will know that I’ve been nervous about the decline of pottery being taught in Universities and Colleges. My concern is that if we cut off exposure to the arts support for the arts will suffer. Lately my specific concern for potters has expanded to include all of the arts and not just the waning exposure and opportunity in higher education but the diminished circumstances in primary and secondary schooling. In the last year I have probably read as many arts advocacy blog posts as I have pottery posts. The reality is more disturbing than I could have imagined. The arts are fighting a rearguard action against the bean counters and pencil pushers who hold the fate of funding in their hands. At this stage it looks like a slowly losing battle.

As fellow potters and artists of many stripes you all reading this will be familiar with just how valuable a creative pursuit can be. You were once kids and may even have kids of your own now. You may also remember the hurdles you had to jump or the windows of opportunity it took for you to become acquainted with and explore your future passion. So as these hurdles get bigger and the opportunities get smaller and slimmer for the next generation I encourage every one of you creative souls to share what you know and help make the promise of a life spent in pursuit of imagination and passion a reality for the kids in your community. The schools are failing them all too often, but with innovative volunteer programs parents and local professionals can help fill the gaps and maybe even turn the tide. See what your local school system has to offer. Help make a difference. If not the creative souls actually making a living as artists, who else will stand up for the importance of imagination and the value of creativity? Who else are we counting on to fix things for us and for our children?

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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4 Responses to Oglethorpe Clay Cluster

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    Great post! Really glad to hear your session went well.

    It’s somewhat staggering to imagine that if the trends you’re seeing hold, in a couple decades the state of handmade pots could be greatly diminished. I’d always just assumed it was an upwards progression, like Leach to MacKenzie, and him to his UM students, and them to just about everybody, etc. Break that chain, however, and I expect the general state of things would regress quickly. Ugh… Despair.

    I think you’re really on to something, about how curriculum choices and school funding are the place that politics and the arts collide head on. Much as I’d like to sit that battle out, I (we) would probably live to regret it.

    • Looks pretty bleak to me, but not without hope. There is always a chance of turning it around. The huge advocacy for the arts is increasingly aware that the message they are offering is at best only treading water and that different tactics will eventually need to be employed. It seems that if those folks can get pointed in the right direction we may have a chance of salvaging things. They really do have a lot of influence. It just needs to be focused less on the establishment baubles and more on the everyday exercise of art in normal people’s lives. This elitism does more to alienate than nurture the support for the arts. Is it any wonder the bean counters are so sceptical about funding the arts?

      The danger of course is that the less folks grow up being exposed to the arts the less sympathy they will have later in life, when some of them become the pencil pushers and bean counters. So it seems we CAN’T give up on the current generation of kids in our schools. We simply can’t afford it.

      That’s my take on it at least…..

  2. Tracey says:

    Good for you Carter, those kids are the future artists or collectors of art and our schools are failing miserably in arts education! Rewards. Are great when you work with kids!

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