Working with Clay in Art History

Yesterday, with the generous help of my colleague Monica Rudquist, the students in Art History: Ancient through Medieval had the chance to create their own version of a fertility figure in terracotta. They came out great, and we had an awesome time making them together. But more importantly, I think the process gave students a better appreciation for how clay can be worked as a material. Hopefully, the next time they come across a ceramic work of art, they can understand it from the perspective of the maker.

A variety of Neolithic and Paleolithic figures including the Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Dolní Věstonice, Venus of Hohlefels, and other examples of figures from Germany, Syria, and Çatalhöyük in Turkey.

In our lecture content, we recently finished our analysis of prehistoric art, which included examples from both the Neolithic and the Paleolithic periods. One of the themes that emerged time and time again was the relative consistency of small female figures across regions and materials, which included limestone, clay, and ivory. With their heavy breasts and corpulent bodies, there is a lot that will remain a mystery about these small figures. Nevertheless, our goal in making them was to get a feel for the materiality of clay while understanding the many different ways that you can create a 3-dimensional form. Some students found that working with clay came easy. Other students struggled to mold the form into what they desired. Some used their hands to shape a solid mass into their figure while others (including myself) created a core base and attached legs, arms, breasts, and heads. Some students got even more creative, and we have a likeness of Beyonce’s recent pregnancy photo with Blue Ivy and a goddess with a serpentine protector. The longer they worked, the more the clay evidenced their unique personal approach.

We don’t always have the opportunity for this kind of kinetic learning in art history, especially if coverage is a concern. But if the goal is to understand an ancient people who have no written documents and limited material evidence, nothing gets us closer than working with only our hands and nails. I’m now actively looking through my syllabus to see if we might not have another opportunity to get into the ceramic studio moving forward! It makes the techniques we study more real and tangible. In the meantime, check out these awesome clay bodies produced by my class.

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