Sculpting a set of life skills in advanced ceramics class
By Lou Fancher
It’s amazing what can be learned from a lump of clay, and it goes far beyond the art studio.
“Craftsmanship, attention to detail, step-by-step process, following directions, writing critiques, getting along with others, cooperative cleaning up, responsibility for shared space and one’s work,” said longtime College Park HighSchool ceramics teacher Lesley Jensen about the life skills students develop as they master this art form.
The results of the industriousness and ideal citizenry developed in the advanced ceramics class that’s part of Jensen’s robust, 145-student program are on display Feb. 11-March 3 in the College Park Student Ceramics Show at Valley Art Gallery in Walnut Creek.
While directing for 19 years the program at College Park and during Jensen’s more than 30 years as an instructor in Bay Area public schools and at Walnut Creek Civic Arts Education (now known as the Center for Community Arts), she’s become convinced that art launches not just human innovation, but an ad hoc, powerful workforce.
“How many adults know how to follow directions?” she asked. “We’ve had more than 2,000 students all together. The finished products are top notch. They have to write, do planning, critiques, reflection. It’s not just making cool stuff. It’s specific assignments, very structured.”
Jensen has also learned a valuable lesson — to give assignments that capitalize on student’s innate desire to think deeply about themselves and their relationships.
“A lot of my assignments have to do with things like the box the first year students are doing. The inside is a metaphor for what’s going on inside of them. The outside is the world around them. They love that.”
And they love experimental approaches to various kilning techniques, or novel applications like silk screening that have them pushing colored clays the consistency of melted ice cream through screens onto wet clay.
A vase made by Michael O’Neal, 17, included in the show, takes full advantageof the technique. “I threw a tall, thick, even cylinder,” he said. “I took red sodium silicate and painted it on, then dried just the outer layer with a heat gun. The inside was still wet, so when I pushed that out, it cracked. We heated it up in a raku kiln and wrapped it in a bucket of newspaper to smoke it.”
The result? An elegant, symmetrical vase whose blackened highlights were turned a brighter shade of red after O’Neal used a propane torch to burn off the carbon. The functional aspect of ceramics, he said, brings satisfaction and a degree of pride in making something useful and visually striking.
Lainor Landaverde, 17, identifies an artist and says that means his work extends beyond the happy, colorful vase he made in Jensen’s class. “I do sketches, I have ideas. Some involve music too. I’ve been in the class for three years,” he said. “I like expressing myself. The different colors (in my vase) mean different feelings.”
The uplifting, celebratory energy expressed in Landaverde’s vase that is clearly inspired by the pop art of Keith Haring is shared in an ocean-themed teapot made by 17-year-old Trinity Alilin. Although Alilin chose to use a more hand-shaped, organic approach than her classmates, there’s no less thought and craftsmanship in the work’s details.
“I like nature and going to the beach, so I made the teapot with plants you’d find in the ocean and barnacles,” she said. “The spout mimics coral. It’s almost like something you’d find in a coloring book.”
Jensen’s program featured at the nonprofit gallery that was formed in 1949 has been awarded the Gloria Marshall Award. The cash prize named after Valley Arts former long-time gallery director is given each year to a public school arts program or project.
“The ceramics program at College Park was selected this year because it is unique and because Lesley Jensen is such an inspirational and dedicated teacher,” said gallery board president Julie Armstrong. “The students learn every technique imaginable in working with clay and they are often inspired to pursue their creative interest in it well beyond high school.”
Yet even if they choose to follow pursuits other than art, Jensen — and the greater world — will benefit. After all, there’s reward in knowing that from a lump of clay, students’ individual joy, integrity, work ethic and collective pride are on the rise.