Terra Cotta Masks

We have been looking at African mask examples this week in preparation for making clay masks. The examples help illustrate how students can make their masks more three-dimensional, how they can use incised lines and patterns to add interest, and how we can add raffia, feathers, and beads when we complete our fired masks. The examples also inspire the kids to add features from different animals--horns, beaks, ears, etc.

Each summer I teach two-week thematic camps. Right now we are on a jungle theme. Two weeks is enough time to make a clay project, let it dry, and fire it, but not enough to glaze it. I have to fire seventy pieces in one load, so projects that can nest and "spoon" in the kiln are easier than bulkier objects.I took my sample to inspire the kids, but not to limit them. I used it to explain the steps in the process:

1. Making the mask.
2. Letting the mask dry over a toilet paper tube to give it a rounded form.
3. How firing changes the color of the clay.
4. The painting of the clay.
5. The unpainting of the clay.
6. The decorating possibilities.
7. How the mask looks if left outside for months.

This project works for age five and up. The materials needed are low-cost and readily available:
1. The clay, of course. I gave each child enough to form an "apple" ball and a "golf" ball.
2. A Chinet plate for each child. The plate doesn't have to be new.
3. A plastic drinking straw, plastic fork, and a craft stick for each child.
4. A toilet paper tube for each child.
5. A kite string for cutting, and a toothpick or stylus for writing names.

I push all the tables together to seat seven children on each side of a 10x6" surface. After demonstrating the ever-magical slicing of the clay with the kite string, we have the Clay Race. The Clay RaceFamilies don't sit down to those big meals and pass the plates and bowls anymore, so kids don't know how to pass. Passing is a skill, and passing without spilling is a really useful skill. The Clay Race is also a time choreographing tool for the teacher, allowing stretching or squishing to fit the time available. It helps if the teacher has ever observed the bizarre pitching motion used in cricket games.

The Clay Race can be used with age three and up:
1. Explain that each team has a Starter and a Stopper. The Starter stays the same, but the Stopper changes with each round.
2. Do an elaborate get set-go display of grabbing a chunk of clay in each hand, twirling it about, and plunking it down before the Starter of each team. The kids start yelling, "Pass! Pass it! Pass it!" Get the teams to stop passing at the Stopper.
3. The Stopper, obviously, changes to the next person on each team. The get set-go display can become even more crazy. The kids are learning The Clay Stops Here, with apologies to Harry S. Truman. They are also overcoming whatever aversion they have to touching the ooey-gooey clay.
4. There's lots of energy and excitement without actual winners.

Now it's time for aerobic squeezing, but first, The Two Rules of Clay. The Two Rules are easier than the Eight-fold Path of Buddhism, yet still guide us in our daily search for Nirvana:
1. Don't Eat It!
2. Don't Pound It!
Rule One reminds us to care for ourselves.Rule Two reminds us to be considerate of others.Doesn't that pretty much cover it?

Aerobic Squishing and SqueezingWarning! The art teacher should not actually put on a leotard. Our goal is not to traumatize youngsters. Our goal is to increase their hand strength. [Right now I have a student who practiced with scissors to create a Susan Powter meets John Deere hairstyle all her own.]...and squeeze and squish. And squish and squeeze. And pass it. Left hand. Right hand. Left hand squeeze. Right hand squeeze. Left hand. Right hand. Up-squeeze. Down-squeeze. Behind your back-squeeze. Over your head squeeze. Other side now! Repeat....And pat and pat and push and slap. Now pull apart, and 1-2-3-4 Slap! Now roll and roll and ROLL it! Feel the burn?....[Try to end up with an apple-size ball, and a golf ball-size blob] Set aside the "golf ball".

Remind everyone of the distinction between patting/pushing and "The Forbidden" pounding. Pat and push the apple into a pancake. Use the toilet paper tube to "cookie-cut" two eye holes in the pancake. Show the kids how to use the craft stick to poke the clay out of the tp tube, then give the tube a mildly crushing squeeze. (The tube needs to compress as the clay shrinks during drying.) Save the circles of clay. Use the fork, Luke, to incise a design on the surface of the clay. Scritchy-scratching turns out bad, so go for something more controlled, texture-wise.Now it's time to put the crunched tp tube on the old Chinet plate. Carefully pick up the pancake with eyeholes, and drape it over the tp tube on the plate. Use the cut-out clay circles to form monkey ears or baboon mouths. Use the extra "golf ball" clay to create other strange features.The drinking straw is for poking holes around the edges.

When the clay is fired, thread raffia and other decorations through the holes. Add a wire or leather thong for hanging the mask.Oh, no! Wait, wait! Back up a step! After the clay is fired, we will paint it with black tempera, then wait a few minutes. We'll take turns washing the paint off the surface at the big art sink, leaving the black paint in the crevices like a patina. Each child decides how much paint to wash off.My sample mask has been hanging on the patio fence for 3-4 months. The lizards have been using it as their clubhouse/kiva. Even though it is drenched in downpours and spritzed with the automatic sprinklers, it still has the black contrasts in the grooves.

Groovy, baby. And the art teacher has been sweating with the oldies.

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