Sculpting futures with clumps of clay

CARCROSS A piece of clay whizzed by and plunked against a table across the room. Boyish snickers erupted from the corner.


A piece of clay whizzed by and plunked against a table across the room.

Boyish snickers erupted from the corner.

Hunched over damp mounds of clay, three guys wielding rolling pins and cutters manipulated the earthy substance into tile-sized squares.

“I’m making this for my mom for Mother’s Day,” said one of the boys holding up a dark, muddy tile.

It was just after 3 p.m. on Thursday, and there were 11 kids in the Carcross school shop.

“Sometimes we get two kids and sometimes we get 22,” said clay guru Claudia MacPhee, who has been running the after-school drop-in for the last three years.

MacPhee fell into this pottery coaching position accidentally.

Four years ago, one of her customers stopped by for a dozen fresh eggs and mentioned that some local artisans were thinking of starting a pottery group.

MacPhee, who’d toyed with clay in the past, signed up.

“I was desperately trying to remember what I knew, and was looking on the internet and getting books from the library,” said MacPhee.

“I found it all started to come back to me; it’s sort of like riding a bike.”

As time wore on, MacPhee’s fellow potters began dropping out, until one day she found herself alone, working at the school space she still inhabits.

“The kids in school would all come and look at me — watching,” she said.

“And I began to feel guilty.”

So, MacPhee approached the school principal and decided to host a student drop-in once a week.

The drop-in grew, and soon became bi-weekly. But it didn’t stop there.

Now, MacPhee teaches pottery classes at the school twice a week, as well as hosting the kindergarten to Grade 9 drop-ins.

“A lot of kids don’t do that well in school,” said MacPhee.

“And what they’re learning is that they’re failures, because everything they try doesn’t work out.

“So when they come here, start to loosen up a little bit and start making stuff that is good, because they do have those skills, it gives them the sense that there’s something they can do well — it makes them feel better about themselves.

“It gives them more self confidence, cause they can say, ‘OK, I can’t do math, I can’t do this other stuff, but I can do pottery.’

“Everybody needs something that they can do.”

MacPhee pointed out a small boy sitting at a pottery wheel.

Spread out on the round, metal surface were clay balls, flattened triangles, rolled legs and a round animal-shaped body.

Very focused, 11-year-old Navarro Jim didn’t even look up when asked what he was making.

“A big dinosaur,” he said, still intent on the clay he was shaping, his hands moving with ease and dexterity.

“Navaro was wild in the classroom, because he couldn’t settle down,” said MacPhee.

“But he’ll spend hours working on stuff and he’ll sometimes get very upset when he has to leave.”

By teaching kids how to focus and problem solve, this pottery program has actually made them better students, she said.

“Art is not about being an artist, it’s about learning how to solve problems creatively.”

Around a table, several young potters are working and chatting, sharing ideas.

“Don’t glaze the bottoms,” said 11-year-old Rebecca Pollard.

“I almost forgot that too.”

In front of her, the table was littered with miniature food, and Pollard was carefully putting pink glaze on the top of each of her clay cupcakes.

Nine-year-old Natasha Benoit-Peters was working beside her, on a clay basket.

“It’s a candy holder,” she said.

“But you can put eggs in it too.”

MacPhee walked around, answering questions and offering suggestions, but generally she just let the kids be kids.

“See up there,” she said pointing at the ceiling.

On the white pressboard there were numerous grey lumps, the pottery version of spitballs.

“In one afternoon we can go through 50 pounds of clay, when the kids are really rocking,” said MacPhee.

And no, most of that does not end up on the ceiling.

“Claudia is like the Pied Piper of pottery,” said Colleen James, the relative of several kids in the program.

“She comes in and kids run down here after her.

“On Tuesday and Thursday, when that three-o’-clock bell rings, within a minute the kids are running in the door.”

With as many as 22 young potters at one session, the noise level can get pretty daunting, said MacPhee.

“Teachers come in here and ask how I can stand it, but I don’t even notice.

“So, they’re making a bunch of noise, so what — as long as they’re having fun.”

However, MacPhee does have two rules her students must follow: they have to clean up, and be respectful of the tools, each other and her.

Oh, and there’s the shop rules too, she said, pointing at a blackboard.

The rules begin normally: “Think safety, No running,” but as they progress they get a little wonkier — “Always wear underwear on your head or over your pants,” read the last one.

“I’m pretty easy going,” said MacPhee, and it showed.

The kids were happy, laughing, horsing around and working.

On a table by the door, sat an array of colourful planters compete with soil and houseplants. “The kids made these for Mother’s Day,” said MacPhee, who’d brought in the plants that morning from her greenhouse.

One planter is particularly striking. A bright blue frog, its amphibian fingertips bulging realistically, sits on a gnarled log, the plant growing out of the wood like a young sapling.

“Some of the older girls are just great artists,” said MacPhee, who hopes to encourage them to sell commercially.

This year, funding from Crime Prevention Yukon has paid MacPhee’s wages for the first time, and helped to pay for 450 kilograms of clay and a number of glazes,

Carcross school also bought a new kiln two years ago, which MacPhee and her students have already fired up nearly 100 times.