Thinking Thematically in the Ceramics Studio

Several years ago, I had the joy of teaching AP Art History to a group of particularly engaged, good-humored, and intellectually rigorous juniors and seniors. Together, we looked at thousands of works of art, travelled to multiple museums and engaged in heated debates over the meanings of things.

Students re-enact Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper composition
Students re-enact Tintoretto’s Last Supper composition

The whole experience reminded me how exciting it is to dive into the sweep of human art and culture and the thrill of finding and building connections across medium, place and time.  On a personal note, I had experienced this thrill as a high school student myself under the creative instruction of my favorite high school teacher, Mark Potter. Here is a picture of Mark teaching, from 1993, taken from the linked site above.


As my students and I galloped through centuries of art, I found myself wondering if there might be a way to revamp my other classes — my studio art classes — to capture some of the sense of expansiveness and scope we were experiencing in the art history survey.

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Playing Twister to learn the architectural elements of Gothic cathedrals, Islamic mosques and Romanesque portals.

There was such a sense of wonder, possibility, rigor, questioning, expression, and personal and collective narrative embedded in the history of art around us…. How could I design a studio art curriculum to capture this sense of scope?

Prior to this point, I had been teaching my ceramics and sculpture classes with a more focused look at formal issues — considering ceramics and sculpture primarily from the perspective of formal aesthetics: form, shape, line, texture, color, contrast, balance, material resonance and meaning…. the “essential vessel.”  This was the visual arts language that dominated the class.  However — as much as I revere and adore the fundamentals of working with clay: the immediacy of the material and the beauty and meaning of formal aesthetics — I still felt that the scope I was presenting to students was too narrow.  I decided that I needed to try and do both: to continue to teach formal ideas about art, rooted in intuitive making, skill-building, and formal analysis, but also to open up a much bigger space for dialogue about art and being an artist in the 21st century.

Collective brainstorming in AP Art History

But — how to organize?  With a significant change in scope, there was the danger of losing important points of reference and and confusing students in the process.  I needed a framework, so I decided to translate the same overall themes that I had used to teach AP Art History — to the Ceramics studio.  Each theme became a focus of our inquiry for one term (we have four terms a school year). These themes, which I adapted from the amazing art educator Yu Bong Ko, (who I met at the Taft TEC Program in the summer of 2014) are THE NATURAL WORLD, THE HUMAN BODY, KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEF, and INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIETY.

Given that the themes are expansive, they allow for multiples ways to describe and interpret the world through art making, while also enabling students to develop a ‘lens’ through which to analyze other works of historical and contemporary art.  I found that students seemed to benefit from these clear themes that are immediate to their everyday experience.  Each theme allows for multiple sub-themes, projects and interpretations. The scope is enormous, but the umbrella themes are immediate and relatable.

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Indeed, this thematic approach to ceramics / sculpture has allowed me to extend my reach with students.  As a teacher, I wanted to create opportunities for young people to explore larger topics through art making, and, in so doing, understand more about contemporary art practice and conceptual approaches to art process and product.

Advanced Ceramics students working on collaborative piece for Individual and Society unit.

While this curriculum is still developing, it has been a thrill to see how the large themes enable a dialogue across medium, time and place — and how students, in collaboration, have pushed into new conceptual and technical territory through this expanded space.

Detail from collaborative work entitled “(In)Equality Basin” from my Advanced Ceramics class 2014-15.  As 10th grade student, Ben D., wrote in the artist statement:  “The goal of this installation is to portray the issue of social inequality in America today… The tiles are put together in a circular form representing that we must pick up our broken pieces and put them back together as civil society.  On the tiles themselves, one side features black and white historical photos of various scenes of both triumph and tragedy — documenting the history of both social justice and injustice in the US.” Exhibited at the Arnheim Gallery at MassArt in 2015

If you’re interested in learning more about how I define each of the four major course themes, I have summarized them here:


The Natural World is an expansive category referring to natural landscapes, organic forms, weather, terrain, flora and fauna. This theme also encompasses issues like sustainability, environmental degradation and climate change. Artists find beauty and meaning in nature while exploring the boundary between wilderness and civilization.


Artists throughout history have used The Human Body as a medium to express views of self, identity, and culture. Through this larger theme, artists explore sub-themes such as dreams, inner visions, portraits, personal narrative, power and memory. The human form can serve as a canvas to explore social issues like racism, war and consumerism or emotions like joy, grief and longing.


Knowledge and Belief focuses on the connection between idea and form.  Ideas about the soul, life and death, the afterlife (or lack thereof) often define and animate artistic form. Ideas about ART itself — whether form, color, design — also deeply affect artistic outcomes. This theme invites an examination of how our values relate to the art that we produce.


Artists sometimes make art as a form of social commentary or political protest. They craft creative responses to the communities in which they live. In so doing, they raise such questions as: What is the relationship between the Individual and Society? What political, social, economic or environmental issues affect who we are and who we become? How does does one initiate change?



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