Making in clay at the Jackson Memorial Library

Summer Office Assistant Laura Williams shares her experience teaching clay techniques to a group of youth in St. George, Maine.

Before coming to Watershed, I taught and made in Chicago, Illinois at Magical Minds Studio, an after school program providing students with a space to learn about and make art. I knew when I accepted the job in Watershed’s office that I’d miss my home studio, but felt the opportunity to work for Watershed and live in Midcoast Maine was worth the time away.  So, when the Jackson Memorial Library invited Watershed to lead a two day workshop with the youth of St. George, I was thrilled. Brian McNamara, another summer staff member also volunteered. Together we put together our two day lesson; the first day focused on mask-making and the second day was devoted to using coils to create vessels.

Attaching coils to the base

We worked in the Watershed claybody, a terracotta earthenware that was deposited outside the Watershed studio back when Watershed served as a brick factory. Before diving into the first clay project with the students, we discussed the clay mining process and the kids excitedly pulled apart their material in search of rocks and other matter typically found in ground clay. The children’s work, when fired, will form a lovely brick color.  

During the first day of instruction, Brian demonstrated how to throw a slab by picking up a piece of clay and throwing it at an angle onto the table. This process manipulates the shape of the material, forming a clay sheet. While many students enjoyed throwing the clay to create a flat surface, others chose to roll out the slab with a baker’s pin. Next, we laid our slabs over a ball of newspaper to form the desired facial shape. Participants then formed eyes, mouths, ears, cat whiskers and other details to bring the pieces to life.

Slipped finished form

The second day, we developed our abilities in coiling. After building a base, we slipped and scored each coil, laying them atop one another to gain height. Slipping and scoring refers to a ceramic process by which makers create texture on either side of the two pieces which are being attached. The maker then applies “slip” or soft, wet clay atop the texture as a sort of ceramic glue. This technique ensures the two pieces dry together and allow for a proper connection. Once we’d achieved the desired shape and size we painted our works with slips to be fired.

The workshop took place over two weekday mornings; and despite the time of day, the library was bustling. During the ceramics lesson, a tai chi class met outside, book seekers came and went, and workshop participants happily conversed with spectators about making in clay.  A group of local teachers met next door to prepare for the upcoming school year, and they stopped in to say hello, recognizing most of our participants. It quickly became clear that the library serves as a gathering hub for the St. George Community.

As the children’s pieces fire in our kiln, I feel lucky to have taught  this hard working and receptive group in such a beautiful and welcoming space. The children will soon have their work returned to them and will hopefully continue to make in clay.

Masks dry in the sun on the path to the library