Speaking to an art class of fifth-graders, local sculptor Debra Chako described the clay firing process in terms she thought they would better understand.
“If you think about it, cookies are baked at 350 degrees and these will be baked at 2,200 degrees,” Chako told a stunned audience.
“The clay gets so hot, it glows,” she added.
High heat will vitrify the students’ ceramics, making their work glass-like and water resistant, Chakro explained. This is essential because the final sculpture will be placed in Seatack Elementary An Achievable Dream Academy’s ocean-friendly garden in front of the school.
Seatack staff and students set up the new garden this fall in partnership with the VB Surfrider Foundation, and Seatack’s gifted resource teacher Marie Culver knew it would be a work in progress.
Culver applied for a Sustainability Impact Project grant from the Virginia Beach Education Foundation (VBEF) and was awarded funds in November to provide additional support to add to the garden. With the VBEF grant, underwritten by CH2M Hill and Virginia Beach Schools Federal Credit Union, Culver is able to purchase ocean-friendly garden plants and materials such as clay, glaze and rebar for the sculpture Chako will produce with help from Seatack students in grades three through five and their art teacher Maggie Smith.
Chako volunteered her time to visit Seatack art classes several days last month to help them produce ceramic coral pieces that will form the base of a sculpture she calls “Ocean Dance.”
The students’ first step is to produce a clay circular tube from a tool called an extruder. Using all their might, students pushed down a lever to move clay through device, and Chako cut off clay tubes into sizes a little bit larger than the cardboard insert of a toilet paper roll.
Step two is for students to texture the clay while making sure not to crush the circular shape of the tube. Plastic buckets filled with a mix of natural and man-made objects provide students with options for texturing.
“Oh, there are gumballs, a necklace, a hammer with points, a starfish, a roller, a button, some shells,” called out one student as she looked through the items in the bucket at her table.
“Did you know that gumballs are not made of gum?” asked another student. “I learned that today.”
One student limits her texturing to the dots left behind by wrapping a plastic-bead necklace around the clay and pressing gently.
The texturing process did have its challenges.
“It’s hard to keep it in a circle. You have to keep your fingers or hand in it while you turn it around,” said one student. A cardboard tube held inside the clay helps students maintain the shape of their designs.
“You don’t have to paint every part of the clay,” advised Chako. “It’s actually nice if some of the clay shows through.”
Despite the advice, students were determined to cover every inch of their coral with one hand holding a paintbrush and the other steadying the clay.
Fifth-graders Lanasia Sanderson and Dream Tate had their eyes on the same color.
“Blue. That’s my favorite color,” said Sanderson.
Tate she also would use blue, and Sanderson gave her blessing with a smile. “Well, since we’re besties, I guess she can use it, too,” she said.
“Verde,” repeated Calderon when his classmate asked how to say green in Spanish.
The fifth-graders at the table practiced saying “anaranjado, amarillo, morado and azul” as they painted their ceramics with the colors orange, yellow, purple and blue.
As students finish painting and clean up their work stations, Chako explained what’s next.
“I will place their pieces among five or seven vertical bars, maybe as high as 8 feet, to form coral,” she said. “Then I’m going to put lookdown fish on top so it looks like they are swimming in a school. I will add a couple of other elements to give it variety.”
“What’s so cool about that is that our school is a neighbor to the Virginia Aquarium and has a lot of partnerships with them,” added Culver, noting that people associate lookdown fish with the aquarium’s sculpture at its main entrance.
Seatack students and staff will unveil the completed sculpture in a garden celebration just before Earth Day in April.
And how will students be able to identify their coral piece in the “Ocean Dance” sculpture once its on display?
“One student wanted to know how he would know which was his,” said Chako. “I told him, ‘Just like a necklace is made of beads and a single bead is one part of the necklace, you are all making one part of the sculpture.’”
Smith loves the authentic project in her art classes for many reasons.
“I like the fact that it pulls the entire school together, and the kids get to see an artist other than me. They get to see a real working artist,” she said. “It’s also nice to have a project that really benefits the community. They don’t keep it themselves — it’s a gift. So it pulls out those intrinsic values.”
What does she think the students will say when they see the final work of art?
“I think they’re minds are going to be blown,” answered Smith, “and they are going to be completely shocked because they are only making a little piece of it. Even I don’t know what the final vision will be. We’re excited to see it.”
To learn more about Virginia Beach Education Foundation (VBEF) grants and how individuals, community organizations and businesses are supporting teaching and learning through the VBEF, visit www.vbef.org or contact VBEF coordinator Debbie Griffey at email@example.com. The 2015-16 VBEF grant projects and grant underwriters are featured in a booklet available online here.