Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Clay - Wall Pockets

The children roll clay slabs to make wall pockets in the style of antique Chinese wall pockets. For ages 9 to 13. Plan 4 sessions.

  • Learning about Chinese folk art
  • Working with three-dimensional form
  • Making and working with clay slabs
  • Applying underglazes and glazes
slab, scratch and slip method, greenware, bisqueware, underglazes, glaze

Click here to view additional information about working with clay. Click here and scroll down to see four examples of Chinese wall pockets.

Ceramic wall pockets were once widely used in China. It is believed that they were hung on the walls of inner courtyards and used to hold chopsticks, plants, or flowers. Although other cultures also produced similar works with different motifs, the Chinese were able to portray animals and the natural world in an expressive manner that is direct and can be appreciated by children.

  • 12- by 18-inch Masonite boards with one side unfinishedone for each childor canvas to cover the work surface
  • Claytwo grapefruit-sized balls for each child plus a few extra
  • Clay needle tools or tenpenny nails (Nails that are 3 inches long.)
  • Containers with a small amount of slip or waterone for every two children
  • Rolling pins or stiff cardboard tubes
  • Guide sticks (optional, see below)
  • Newspaper
  • Underglazes in a variety of colors (non-toxic)
  • Clear glaze (non-toxic)
  • Brushes for applying underglazes and glazes
  • Trays and plastic bags for storing and drying the clay
  • Pictures or examples of antique Chinese wall pockets
Note: Although not used when making the wall pockets in this lesson, guide sticks are helpful for controlling the thickness of the clay. For this project, they should be approximately 3/8-inch thick by 12 to 18 inches long and can be made using strips of wood, flat rulers, or even strips of cardboard stacked and taped together.

First Session
  • Check the clay several days ahead to be sure it is of good workable consistency.
  • Wedge the clay into grapefruit-size balls, planning one per child.
  • Cover the work area with Masonite boards (unfinished side up) or canvas.
  • Set out clay balls, rolling pins, guide sticks (optional), needle tools or ten-penny nails, and containers of slip or water.
How to Begin
  • Tell the children about Chinese wall pockets and their uses. Explain that, in this session, they will be rolling slabs to make the pouch part of their own wall pockets and, in the next session, they will be adding details.
  • The children should know that before clay projects are fired in the kiln, they are referred to as greenware. After the first firing, they are referred to as bisqueware. After the bisqueware is painted, it is put in the kiln again for a final firing. Pieces of clay are attached using the scratch-and-slip method by scratching the surfaces to be joined, applying a small amount of slip or water, and pressing the two pieces together.
  • Demonstrate how to make a clay slab. If using guide sticks, place one on each side of the clay ball. Be sure they are positioned so that the rolling pin will ride on both sticks. Starting from the center of the ball of clay, roll away from yourself with enough pressure to begin flattening the clay. Roll only to the edge of the clay. Lift the rolling pin and return to the center. Roll towards yourself using the same pressure. Repeat these steps, gradually increasing the pressure until the rolling pin rides directly on the guide sticks. As you work, turn the slab over several times to avoid having it stick to the board. If working without guide sticks, follow the same procedure, being careful that all the sections of the final slab are at least 3/8-inch thick.
  • Explain to the children that they can choose to make a folded wall pocket with a scene from nature, or they can make a wall pocket in the shape of an animal. For a folded wall pocket, cut an oblong shape from the slab. Fold the bottom of the slab towards the top over a small wad of newspaper to keep the pocket open. Attach the two sides of the slab by scratching, slipping, and pressing them together. For an animal-shaped wall pocket, cut the front and back body shapes from the slab. Scratch and slip along the three edges of each shape that will be attached. Lay one shape on the top of the other with a wad of newspaper in between to support the pocket opening. Press together the edges.
  • Distribute the clay and let the children begin rolling their slabs to make the pouch part of their wall pockets. Remind the children that they will be making additions in the next session.
Note: Allow the clay pockets to harden slightly, and then wrap them with plastic wrap until the next session. 

Second Session
  • Wedge the clay into grapefruit-size balls, planning one per child.
  • Cover the work area with Masonite boards or canvas.
  • Set out the clay balls, needle tools, containers of slip or water, and the clay pockets.
How to Begin
  • Explain to the children that, in this session, they will be adding scenes of nature on their folded pockets or details on their animal-shaped pockets.
  • While making these additions, the children should leave the newspaper in the pockets to support the clay. Emphasize the importance of scratching and slipping all attachments and pushing gently so as not to break the greenware.
  • Have the children make the additions to their clay pockets. When the pockets are completed, make a 1/2-inch hole in the back for hanging.
Note: Slowly dry the pockets under plastic wrap, gradually loosening the wrap over a two week period. When completely dried, bisque fire the clay in a kiln.

Third Session
  • Set out bisque-fired clay pieces.
  • Set out brushes and a variety of underglazes.
How to Begin
  • Explain to the children that they will be adding color to their bisqueware using underglazes, a paint for clay.
  • Demonstrate how quickly the underglazes dry when applied to the bisqueware. The children will need to dip their brushes often to avoid scrubbing and to cover all areas. They should carefully dab into any cracks or rough areas on the clay surface.
  • Before giving the children their clay pieces, warn them that bisqueware is fragile and must be handled carefully.
  • Have the children paint their wall pockets with two coats of underglaze colors and allow the pieces to dry overnight.
Note: If time permits, low-fire the underglazed pieces before applying the clear glaze. However, if done carefully, the glaze can be applied directly over the dried underglaze.

Fourth Session
  • Set out clear glaze and brushes.
  • Set out dried or fired underglazed clay pieces.
How to Begin
  • Explain to the children that they will be applying glaze, or a clear coating, to add strength to their wall pockets. Explain that the glaze will cover up the underglaze colors temporarily. When the clay is fired in the kiln again, the glaze will melt and turn clear, allowing the colors to show.
  • To avoid putting on too much clear glaze, which will cause the colors to become cloudy after firing, be sure the children understand that when the glaze is first applied it will look transparent. As it dries it becomes opaque. The number of coats needed varies according to the glaze instructions, but usually one or two coats are sufficient.
  • Make sure the children understand that if any glaze gets on the bottom of the bisqueware, it will stick to the kiln shelf during firing. If glaze does get on the bottom, wipe it off with a damp cloth.
  • Have the children apply the glaze to the inside of the pockets and then the outside.
Note: Let the pockets dry and glaze fire them.

  • It is important that the children understand that this is a project which will take several weeks to complete because of the drying and firing time involved.
  • In most cases, water works as well as slip for joining pieces of clay and is less messy.
  • It’s essential to emphasize and monitor the safe use of needle tools.
  • Keep reminding the children how easily greenware and bisqueware can be broken. 
  • Applying the clear glaze may not fill a whole session, so plan an extra activity for the children as they complete their work.
  • To make the feelers on the lobster above, holes were made in the clay before firing. Then red plastic-coated wire was glued into the holes.
  • Are the clay slabs rolled with an even thickness?
  • Discuss the process used to roll the slabs.
  • Have the additions been carefully attached?
What the children might say...
  • The clay keeps sticking to my rolling pin.
  • I’m finished rolling my slab, but I can’t lift it because it is stuck to the board.
  • I painted glaze over the hole for hanging.
  • Can I put water in my clay wall pocket for fresh flowers?
What you might say...
  • Start rolling your slab at the center of the clay ball. Lift the rolling pin and return to the center each time. If you roll back and forth, the clay will stick to your rolling pin.
  • Remember to turn your clay over several times while you are rolling your slab. This will keep it from sticking to the board. If you forgot, carefully peel up the edge and the rest of the slab should lift off easily.
  • If glaze got into the hole for hanging, we need to wipe it out before the wall pocket is fired in the kiln.
  • Since our clay is low-fired, it’s best not to put water in it. You can use dried flowers or simply enjoy it as a wall decoration.
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