The whir of the wheel sometimes drowns out ambient sound for hours as ceramic artist Elizabeth Kendall sculpts and molds shapeless wads of wet, milky paste into bowls, cups and pots. It’s a solitary journey, one that she scores with bits of internal narration.
“The story could be about community, sharing and comfort so I might start the day making cups,” says Kendall, president and co-founder of the SoCo Arts Lab. “The cup could become a teapot because a certain curve or angle in the cup started to dominate and suggest a new narrative. A mark such as a split in the rim might happen so I accept it as a way to capture that moment within the story.”
In other words, there’s a storytelling aspect to the work, which is the pivot point for moving the teaching aspect of her work online. She’s currently developing a series of ceramic classes which she hopes to launch in late fall. The anecdotes that accompany the work will drive the format and create that sense of community that sometimes goes missing when people learn from home.
Kendall is less focused on the end results of the work than she is on the beginnings—what motivates certain choices a sculptor makes as she’s working
“You can choose to carve, paint or stamp a pattern on any piece. Each one is an opportunity to expose the ‘why’ behind it.”
Some people make their creative decisions based on nature or maybe a childhood memory. Those triggers or emotional influences launch important discussions.
“It’s process and conversation. The process is simple- you don’t have to have years of experience to do it. Making a bowl is simple.” But a student has to dig more deeply into their work to discover the “talk” part—figuring out the “whys.” And while directing a student through the physical molding process on Zoom might have its challenges, conversation about that process is well suited to online platforms. It also allows SoCo Arts Lab to extend its reach further into the community.
“Being online allows you to bring people in from different areas, experiences and backgrounds which lends to the richness of the conversation,” Kendall says.
Thinking about one’s own motivations might also alleviate newcomer jitters.
“When some people are learning how to be creative—to manipulate with their hands—they want it to be perfect. They’re afraid to make [the first] mark because they might not do it right. But if I can get them to pay attention to why they’re making the mark, then making the mark is less important.”
Motivation becomes a welcomed distraction.
Parts of an artwork make up the whole. She says students tend to become enamored with one aspect of a piece—a slant or a pattern—while others are mesmerized by a different aspect—say a color or a rim.
“We all look at an object and see something different,” she says. That’s another aspect of her creative philosophies that will morph well from the brick and mortar classroom to the I-pad or laptop. There, the confines of Zoom become an asset for isolating those interests.
“Three dimensional objects are seen on a plane. If I were to hold up a tea pot (in front of the camera) information like volume, weight and texture are missing. And if I blow up a photo of it, students can only see certain aspects. It limits information coming in and helps them focus.”
Another upside to online learning is privacy. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to hide your goofs. At the same time, Kendall says, “It’s a conscious decision to allow the unexpected.”
Occasionally, a piece will come out differently than a student thought it would, like when the firing process unexpectedly changes a piece from black to orange. Maybe that student has to set the piece aside for a bit, let it settle in. The value is in the learning.
“They might decide, well, orange is okay…it’s about letting go of preconceptions.”
A video pre-assignment, or how-to might kick off the class series, followed by a more formal introduction to the actual hands-on process. Students can easily observe and comment on other established artists’ work, which is another important process in learning. There will be physical work of course, together but online, as students build toward making those signature marks. COVID allowing, she’s hoping for an outdoor in-person wrap-up gathering where people can meet, bring their work and delve into those “why’s.”
“It’s important to talk about the evolution of a piece—the thinking and feeling part—why they like or don’t like something they’ve created.”
And sometimes it’s a matter of listening for that narrative- waiting for the piece to speak for itself.