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Unfired Clay: Transience


University of the Ozarks



Course Level

Ceramics I: Handbuilding, but could also work with intermediate students


Conversation points for instructors

This project was the first in a series of four prompts having the students explore utilizing unfired clay in their work. It was developed in response to the sudden switch to teaching online in Spring of 2020. The students all had clay, tool kits, and drywall boards to take with them. Instead of pining for the loss of equipment and space, I framed this series of projects as a way to playfully explore a new approach to the material. 


I allowed students to choose from the four categories of prompts in any order, so they were able to build off each other's ideas as they shared each week on our university LMS. Using discussion forums, each student created a new thread where they posted documentation, along with a short written description of each project. Students were required to give written feedback to at least three of their peers. This helped build excitement and community around the work. 


Before starting this series of projects, I also had students research artists that use unfired clay and post their research in a discussion forum via our LMS.



Project Prompt / Challenge

Unlike fired ceramics, unfired clay is fragile and impermanent. For this project, experiment with the effects of water on a bone dry clay sculpture, purposefully creating a situation where your piece will be eroded or dissolved.



Choose one of the following options:

1. Make a beautiful cup or vessel out of clay. Wait for it to become bone dry. Fill it with water (or immerse it in water) and document it as it dissolves. Would it be interesting to document yourself holding it or attempting to drink from it? What context would create the most interested setting for documentation? How does your cup exemplify your ideals of beauty?


2. Make a sculpture of a simplified human figure (or animal). Let the sculpture become bone dry. Set up a situation so that the sculpture interacts with water and document what happens. You could put it outside on a rainy day, slowly pour water over it, put it in a stream, spray it with a hose, etc. How does your figure relate to its environment?



Do you need to do any tests or experiments to see what happens to the clay before you make the piece? How much time will you need for your clay to dry? How will the thickness of the piece affect its reaction to the water? How does the transient or impermanent nature of the work affect its meaning?



How will your documentation of the work create a specific experience for the audience?

What is the best setting to document this work? How will your documentation capture the change in your piece over time? Consider setting up a time lapse, making a short video, or creating a series of photos.


Clay (we used terra cotta)

Ceramics I toolkit (Alternate: household items such as old credit card, pencil, butter knife, wire, sticks, etc)

Camera/phone and tripod


Students create a proposal, receive feedback, and then build and document the project. I did this in one week for small scale projects, but with a larger or more complex piece, it could take 2-3 weeks.


Student Examples:



Linda Swanson

Shay Church

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