A few years ago, when our ceramics program was just getting started, the mayor of our small town decided that the town should have a community tree for all to enjoy. He's always looking for ways to bring people together for the good of the town, to create a stronger sense of community, and to welcome those passing through. He asked that each student in our elementary school make an ornament for this community tree, and we set to work!
Making something out of clay is pretty special, but to give away the very first thing you make is difficult. So students made TWO! One to keep and one to give. Making two ornaments with every student in the school was a huge task, lots of time, lots of prep, lots of sorting! Nowadays only kindergartners make ornaments to contribute to the tree, the new ornaments are added to the collection of previous ornaments, and everybody wins! Each year students of all ages enjoy searching the community tree for their ornament!
Until this year, each slab was rolled using a rolling pin. They're for pies. Imagine rolling slabs for a class of 18-22 kindergartners. Frazzled. Noodle arms. It felt like it took forever, and they weren't always even. This year we have a beautiful, efficient, shiny new slab roller to make the job of prepping clay a breeze! A dream even! Ok, it still takes time, but not nearly as much as it used to and I LOVE IT!
Before the kiddos arrive to art for ornament makin' I have the slabs ready to go on canvas boards (they keep the clay from sticking to the tabletops and makes projects like this a whole lot more tidy), tabletop containers with a variety of things in them to make textures (marker caps, Popsicle sticks, funky pasta noodles, and anything else that will leave neat-o looking dents in clay), plastic wrap over each slab (prevents the clay from sticking to the cookie cutters), and a box of miscellaneous cookie cutters to choose from. In years past I've had students choose a cookie cutter for their two ornaments, taking turns using popular ones like hearts and boots, but little hands really struggle pushing the cookie cutters through the clay. Making my rounds to help each child with the cookie cutters gets a little crazy, so this year I tried something new! That new slab roller inspired all kinds of new! I had art helpers punch out circular clay cookies from the slabs and skipped that part with the kindergartners. It was much more time efficient and way less frustrating for the kids (and me!).
As students finished up, I visited their work area to write their names and class sections on the back. Then I used a plastic straw to poke a hole in the top so the ornaments could be strung or hooked. When the plastic straw gets too clogged, I simply cut that section off and keep poking along!
I left the labeled and poked ornaments on a canvas board in the middle of the table, out of the way of free art activities for finishers, and continued labeling and poking ornaments at each table until all were ready to dry!
I can usually finish labeling and poking the ornaments before their class ends. With just a few short minutes before my next class, I quickly removed the ornaments from the canvas boards at each table and place them in borrowed soda bottle trays.
They stack well in the cabinets they're stored in, allow air all around them so the ornaments dry evenly, they have sturdy handles, and make it easy to sort them into classes when removed from the kiln!
When the ornaments are finally dry enough they're loaded into the kiln. They're fired (temps are incredibly HOT!), cooled (for at least a day), unloaded (carefully), and sorted to glaze. This part is confusing for kiddos. Glaze is like painting, but the colors are mostly pastel and sometimes kinda dull when poured straight from the jar. They get darker, brighter, richer, and change SO MUCH after being fired again! What looks like light purple in the glaze tray actually turns into a gorgeous dark blue! They don't think it makes any sense, but they're always delighted by the surprise colors!
I demo how to glaze before they try it out. There's a lot to know! We talk about putting frosting on cookies. Where does it go? Usually the top! That's where we need our glaze to be. We talked about filling in the nooks n crannies, how to create patterns, how to layer colors. They needed three coats of glaze (otherwise it's not shiny and bright) and could choose any colors they wanted, and they LOVE that part! They're focused, thoughtful, and enjoy telling you about their choices.
The first layer of glaze soaks in pretty quickly, the next takes a bit longer to dry, and the last can take awhile.
Opening the kiln after they've been glaze fired is SO EXCITING! It's A-MAZING how much the colors change! The kids are always so excited, so proud, and so careful when they see their finished work!
They're truly lovely when finished! Some students need a few minutes to choose which ornament to keep and which to give, others know right away which one is going home with them that day. After they choose, they decorate a piece of sturdy rolled paper to wrap it up in.
I wrap them carefully, tape them, Sharpie their name to the tape and a paper bag, place it in the bag, and staple it shut! They're safer, and the stapled bag helps prevent them from sharing their treasure on the bus, avoiding sad accidental breaks.
The donated ornaments are delivered to one of the mayors many volunteers. She makes sure they're cleaned, strung, and helps a group of folks decorate the community tree!
This year my family was asked to light the tree at their ceremony. FUN! We were early, so we went for a little walk up the street to visit shops and passed this super cool n happy door handle that I wish I had on a door of my own!
We lit the tree! We danced to Christmas tunes, sang Christmas carols, and the mayor even read a story!
We are already looking forward to next year!