Thursday, May 31, 2012

Applied Leaf Bowls: Teaching a Workshop

Top to bottom,
American Beech/Deep Sienna Speckle,
Eastern Redbud/Lustrous Jade
American Chestnut/Iron Lustre
If you've made pretty decent preparations, teaching a pottery workshop can be a lot of fun. Decent preparations basically entails making sure you have all the necessary materials and equipment so you aren't having to wing it more than you can handle. It's good to realize that the unexpected is always going to occur so there are opportunities for improvisation built into the experience.

Communication and pacing are key. Communicate that everyone's piece is going to look different - and that that is a good thing. Communicate how long it's going to take to get through the process - so folks aren't burdening themselves with unreasonable expectations of their skills and the time available. Be attentive to the amount of time it's taking to get through the steps and encourage - positive messages are best but there are times a key negative word may be necessary. Let the students explore and let go of your expectations of how things are proceeding and how the students' artworks are evolving. I have found that there are always individuals who want to test the premises of a given situation; there is no better teacher than experience, and sometimes negative experiences ("Gee, I guess that really doesn't work, just like she said....") are the most memorable and instructive. I have observed teachers (and bosses) who seem to believe that humiliation, embarrassment and berating are effective teaching techniques; I have never seen that to be the case. Sharing your own mistakes serves to humanize the instructor, letting the students know it's OK to make mistakes and giving them the opportunity to learn from yours, which can contribute to the workshops overall success, as well as the success of each individual student.

Top to bottom,
Flowering Dogwood/Chun Plum,
American Elm/Textured Turquoise
Oakleaf Hydrangea/Dark Slate
Demonstrating techniques slowly and explaining each step - and the reasons for the specific way each step is executed - segues into letting the student explore each step with helpful supervision. As I prepare the clay to make a slab, I explain that it helps to do so such there is a thinner leading edge so the slab roller can "bite" into it more easily, which prevents the canvas from buckling. I explain that, after having rolled out the slab, pulling back the canvas, replacing it, flipping the entire "clay sandwich" over and repeating pulling back the canvas, releases the clay from the canvas, making it easier to manipulate. There are few steps that, if missed or not quite correctly executed, are fatal; most can be rectified or workarounds implemented. And, as clay is so very forgiving, you can always just wedge it all up and start over again (until it's been fired!)

I find that having fairly representative samples of the pieces to be made in the workshop really gets the excitement going - but be sure to communicate the caveat that their pieces are going to look quite different, a personal reflection of each individual artist. And make sure the students have choices - I show them what I might do for stain (on the leaves) and glaze (for the balance of the piece) combinations, but I leave the final decision up to each student - who sometimes come up with combinations that I might never have contemplated which I may then use in my own work going forward. When asked for a recommendation, I try to give two suggestions so the student retains a sense of independence even though they are, in many cases, pottery novices.

Be prepared for the unexpected, but also realize that, in this context, these are people who actually want to do this, not students required to take a class, and they want to have a good time - so you should, too. So take your time, let them take their time, and stay calm.

Oh - and have fun!

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