Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Clay - Pueblo Pottery

The children learn about Pueblo Indian pottery and make clay pots using a similar process. For ages 6 to 13. Plan 4 sessions.

  • Learning about Pueblo Indian pottery
  • Making and using clay coils
  • Applying underglaze
  • Working with three-dimensional form
coil, scratch and slip, lip, underglaze, leather-hard, burnish, pictographs

Click here for more information on working with clay. Click here and scroll down to see six examples of Pueblo pottery. For more ideas, I highly recommend the book From This Earth: The Ancient Art of Pueblo Pottery.

  • 12- by 18-inch Masonite boards (one for each child) or canvas to cover the work surface
  • Clay, one grapefruit-sized ball for each child, plus a few extra (Amaco No.20 Versa Clay fires white and is especially easy for children to use.)
  • Clay needle tools or tenpenny nails (3-inch long nails)
  • Chamois cloth cut into 3-inch squares (one for each child)
  • Containers with a small amount of slip or water
  • Amaco velvet underglazeTerra Cotta (V-303) and Velour Black (V-370)
  • Brushes for applying underglaze
  • Plastic bags and trays for drying the clay projects
  • Pictures of Pueblo pottery
  • Examples of Native American pictographs
  • Scratch-art tools
  • Water-based satin polyurethane 
The Pueblo Indians began making clay pots two thousand years ago. Most were used for utilitarian purposes, such as cooking, carrying water, and storing food. Extra care was taken to refine the pottery made for serving food, trading, and ceremonial rituals.

The Pueblo potters dug clay from the ground, pulverized it, and mixed it with sand. It was then soaked in water and wedged to the right consistency. To form a pot, they first patted out a  piece of clay that would become the base. Then they curled around thick coils of clay, one on top of the other. The final step was smoothing and burnishing it with pieces of gourd.

Designs were painted directly onto the pots using symbols from nature known as pictographs. In 1930, a carved style of pottery was developed in which a colored slip was first applied before the designs were carved directly into the clay.

The tradition of making pottery continues to the present day, although the pots are now mostly created as works of art.

First Session
  • Check the clay several days ahead to be sure it is of good workable consistency.
  • Wedge the clay into grapefruit-sized balls and set out one for each child.
  • Cover work area with individual Masonite boards or canvas.
  • Have pictures of Pueblo pottery available for discussion.
How to Begin
  • Explain to the children that they will be making clay pots using a process similar to that used by the Pueblo Indians. In this session, they will learn to roll coils and then experiment with possible shapes for their pots. Be sure the children understand that this is a practice session and that the clay will be reused for making Pueblo pots in the next session.
  • Demonstrate how to make a coil. Roll a lump of clay between your hands to form a thick snake-like shape. Put the “snake” on a flat surface. Starting with your fingertips, roll the clay down to the bottom of the palm of your hand and back to your fingertips. Repeat this motion moving up and down the coil, gradually increasing pressure until the coil is about a half-inch in diameter. If the thickness of the coil is uneven, place your hand over the thicker spots and roll with a little pressure.
  • Show the children the pictures of Pueblo pottery, pointing out the variety of shapes. Demonstrate how these shapes were achieved. A coil placed directly on top of the coil below it will make a straight-sided pot. If the coil is placed slightly on the outside edge of the coil below it, the pot will gradually flare open. If the coil is placed on the inside edge of the coil below it, the pot will begin to close.
  • Have the children practice making half-inch-thick coils and experiment with the placement of the coils to make the sides of the pots move in and out.
Note: Re-wet and wedge the clay for the next session.

Second Session
  • Wedge the clay into grapefruit-sized balls and set out one for each child, plus a few extra.
  • Cover work area with individual Masonite boards or canvas.
  • Set out needle tools or ten-penny nails.
  • Set out containers with a small amount of slip or water.
How to Begin
  • Explain to the children that, in this session, they will be building their Pueblo pots.
  • Demonstrate how to make a base for the pots by flattening a piece of clay to a half-inch thickness, slightly larger than the planned bottom of the pot.
  • The first coil added to the base must be attached using the scratch-and-slip method. With a needle tool, scratch the clay on the top of the base about a half-inch inside of the edge. Explain to the children that this half-inch of clay will prevent the pot from sagging while the clay is soft and will be trimmed away after the clay begins to harden. Attach the first coil along the scratched area of the base with a small amount of slip or water.
  • Remind the children that the placement of the coils on the inside edges or outside edges of the previous coil will determine the shape of the pot. As each coil runs out, attach the next one directly against the end of the previous coil. As you work, support the clay with one hand and join the coils on the inside and the outside of the pot by gently pushing a small amount of clay from the top coil into the coil below it.
  • Explain that the top of the pot is called the lip, and it needs to be finished carefully to give the pot a completed look. Smooth the lip and the outside of the pot before allowing it to become leather-hard, which is hard enough to hold its shape, but not too hard to be cut into.
  • Have the children make their pots, reminding them to smooth their coils as they work.
Note:  Prepare a small pot to use for demonstrations and allow all the pots to harden slightly. Then store them on trays and cover with plastic bags to keep them leather-hard. 

Third Session
  • Set out leather-hard pots from the previous session.
  • Set out containers of terra cotta and black underglaze, brushes, pieces of chamois cloth, and needle tools.
How to Begin
  • Explain to the children that they will be trimming the extra clay from the base of their pots; burnishing or rubbing the surface of the clay until it is smooth and slightly shiny; and applying underglaze which is a paint for clay.
  • Demonstrate how to trim the extra half-inch of clay from the base of the pot. With the needle tool slanted slightly inward, carefully cut the extra clay from around the base and smooth the rough edges with your finger.
  • Show the children how to burnish or polish their clay by firmly rubbing the outside of the demonstration pot with a small piece of chamois cloth. 
  • After the surface of the pot has been smoothed and looks polished, apply two coats of colored slip. Explain that, in the next session, they will be carving designs into their pots. The areas where the slip is carved away will turn the color of the clay after being fired in the kiln.
  • Have the children trim and burnish their pots, then apply the colored slip.
Note: Cover the pots with plastic wrap to keep them leather-hard for the next session.

Fourth Session
  • Set out leather-hard pots.
  • Set out scratch-art tools and examples of Native American pictographs
How to Begin
  • In this session, the children will be carving pictographs into their Pueblo pottery. Pictographs are a form of writing through pictures using symbolic rather than realistic drawings.
  • Show the children some of the traditional pictographs that the Pueblo Indians used to decorate their pottery. Explain that the children may use traditional symbols for their pictographs or create their own.
  • Using the demonstration pot and a scratch-art tool, show the children how to carve the pictographs into the pots. Cut into the slipped surface without gouging too deeply into the clay. Gently brush away the bits of clay that form. Remind the children that the areas where they have carved into the slip will turn the color of the clay when it is fired in the kiln.
  • Have the children fill the surface of their pots with patterns of pictographs or their own designs.
Note: Dry the pots very slowly and bisque-fire them in a kiln. After firing, have an adult apply a coat of satin, water-based polyurethane for a protective finish similar to the Pueblo pottery.

  • Be sure that the children understand this project will not be completed for several weeks, since the clay must be dried slowly and fired in the kiln.
  • The coils need to be at least a half-inch thick so the pots will be strong enough for burnishing and carving.
  • It's important to keep the pots in the leather-hard stage while working. If they become too dry, the children will not be able to carve into the clay.
  • Burnishing the pots is an optional step to give the children the experience of the Pueblo Indians. This should be done gently with the pieces of chamois cloth so as not to break the leather-hard pots.
  • It’s important to emphasize and monitor the safe use of the needle tools and the scratch-art tools.
  • Younger children might need help to trim the base of their pots.
  • Keep reminding the children that leather-hard clay is fragile.
  • Are the pots smoothed with finished lips?
  • Compare the various shapes of the pots and discuss how they were achieved.
  • Have the children tell about the pictographs they used on their pots.
What the children might say...
  • My coils keep getting too skinny.
  • I’m going to see how long I can make my coil.
  • I’m afraid if I push too hard while burnishing my pot, it will break.
  • Can I paint the inside of my pot with slip?
  • I made a mistake and put a scratch in the wrong place.
What you might say...
  • Your pot needs to be strong so you can carve into it. Stop often to check the thickness of the coils as you roll them. If a coil becomes too thin, put it aside and try again.
  • Coils are easy to join together on your pot, so it is more important to roll strong coils with even thickness rather than long coils.
  • You made your pot strong by using thick coils. Handle it carefully as you press just hard enough to smooth the surface.
  • For this project, we are going to concentrate on the outside of the pots. The insides of the pots will turn the color of the clay when they are fired in the kiln.
  • If you still notice the mistake after you have finished carving, you can cover it with a little slip.
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