Molding a window to past

Pottery students learning historic art forms get a glimpse into cultures that created them


His eyes, under prominent brows, span the width of his scarred face. His nose is long and thin, but with two bulbous nostrils. His mouth contains only three teeth, each jutting out at a strange angle.

He is an ugly jug, one of the artistic creations for the Ugly Jugs and Raku Pottery class at Common Ground on the Hill at McDaniel College.

The two-week classes give students a chance to mold clay into strange shapes and functional objects while learning about the civilizations in which their art originated.

"It's outstanding that we're really able to learn the backgrounds because you get a real feel for the artwork [and] for the cultures they come from," said Michele Bloom, 59, of New Market. "You understand so much more of the symbolism."

Originally created by African slaves, ugly jugs combined beliefs from African ancestor worship, voodoo and Christianity, said Jim McDowell, 60, of Johnstown, Pa., the pottery class instructor.

Slaves who were not allowed to have tombstones instead had face jugs marking their graves, McDowell said. The faces were given grotesque forms to frighten off the devil, allowing the deceased's soul to go to heaven after condensation and variations in temperatures broke the jug.

"I'm just trying to keep that part of history alive," McDowell said.

Those attending the pottery class also made clay pots, pencil holders in the shape of Mr. Potato Head, Raku pottery and various independent projects.

"The clay sort of takes on a personality of its own as you're working with it," said Bloom, an art teacher at Monocacy Middle School in Frederick.

One face jug Bloom made was nicknamed Finnegan because it looked like it was Scottish or Irish, she said.

"The pipe was an afterthought," she said.

With students using their hands and forearms to knead the clay and shape it on the potter's wheels, many in the class ended up with their bodies and clothes caked in gray.

"You get messy, and it doesn't matter," said Amanda Pope, 13, of Westminster, while constructing a clay SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon character alongside two classmates last week. "It's clay. You're supposed to get messy."

Meanwhile, McDowell was tending to a kiln outside in which he was firing pottery at temperatures nearing 2,000 degrees.

From there, he moved the pieces inside a trash can that contained sawdust and shredded paper. After five to 10 minutes in the smoking trash can, the pottery was cooled in a tub of water. The extreme shifts in temperatures, combined with the glaze coating each piece, produces a crackled pattern and metallic coloring unique to the Japanese Raku pottery technique, McDowell said.

"It's a wonderful process because it allows you to immediately have a pot," McDowell said. "It's not out of your sight that long."

Several of McDowell's students are also art teachers. For them, the sessions are not only chances to make pieces for themselves, but they also provide ideas for their own classes.

Several are working toward graduate degrees and can receive credits from McDaniel for their Common Ground experiences.

"It's a chance to have a lot of fun, learn a lot and get master's credit," Bloom said.

Mary Niagro, who teaches art at Mary of Nazareth School in Montgomery County, said she is primarily into printmaking and had not done pottery in 30 years.

"I just decided I needed to go out and try something totally outside of what I normally do," said Niagro, 52, of Damascus. "I meet other people, and I've gotten great ideas from them. And it's my summer vacation. I'm having fun."

For Trisha Coggins, a seventh- and eighth-grade art teacher at Southern Middle School in Glen Rock, Pa., the highlight of the class is the creative process.

"It's being able to work with your hands, out of something that came from the Earth, and create something from that," said Coggins, who also worked as McDowell's assistant. "It's very healing. It's a release. It becomes an expression of your soul."

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