Thursday, January 12, 2012

When Things Go Wrong

When things go wrong…….. 

I walked into the kiln room this morning to retrieve the relief sculptures some of my students resorted to creating after all other attempts at casting and carving had resulted in epic failures, and what I found both crushed and puzzled me.  Never in all my history of creating art have I seen such a disgusting pile of what can only be described as appearing like hardened diarrhea.  The clay had melted and liquefied to form low mounds of popped bubble ooze that congealed together when cooled to become slabs of hardened funk.  I was perplexed.  What happened?  It was the same red clay we had always used.  It was set to slow fire.  The pieces were not quite bone dry, which is why the kiln was set to such a low fire.  I didn’t understand.  Until…. I looked back at the cone chart and found my mistake.  There is about 1,000 degrees difference between a cone 6 and a cone 06.  I had set the kiln to 6 and melted my students’ clay pieces.  This effected 4 of my 25 students.  Their clay slab was the only thing (artwork) they were going to have to show for all their work, and I ruined it.  I seemed to have screwed most things up on this project.

The majority of this quarter has been, in the terminology of my students, an epic fail.  I started out with what I thought was a great concept.  The guiding question was how can relief sculpture be used to express a personal narrative?  The studio skills to be learned included modeling, additive and subtractive sculpture techniques, casting processes, and three dimensional surface designs.   The sculpture artist we mainly discussed was Ghiberti and his Gates of Paradise baptistery doors, but we also looked at several narrative paintings and discussed how the artists used imagery and object placement (background, middle ground and foreground) to show importance.  We also used Robert Hasting’s poem The Station as a discussion starter about important moments in life.  We went back to our mind map on identity and the things that shape it to look at possible starters for the personal narrative.  Here is where things started to go south. 

Problem 1: I don’t think I was clear enough or thorough enough in my instruction of narrative art and more contemporary artists who create personal narrative art.

Problem 2: Getting personally connected to the assignment.  Most students had a hard time coming up with imagery that could tell a story about an experience, memory or feeling that held any significance for them.  Seeing this I adjusted the motivator and we discussed how many songs tell a story.  Students could illustrate a song.   So we discussed song lyrics.  What’s your favorite song?  Why is it your favorite song?  Could any imagery be created from the lyrics?  This led some students to choosing a song to illustrate.  Most songs they wanted to use were either not school appropriate or it was the rhythm that made it a favorite song, not the lyrics.  I was then unable to get them to visualize how they could represent the rhythm.  With some students I compromised and let them create a relief of a favorite place or object.  At the beginning I told students they would be writing the narrative to accompany their final artwork.  I thought of having them write it first, but I was afraid if I did, they would never get to the making part of the assignment, which is what they all wanted to do.  With 25 students I had to get them moving or I’d definitely loose them.  In retrospect, I should have done that anyway.  May be then they would have thought more about the what, why and how of the art they were going to create and their designs would have been more successful.   

Problem 3:  Technical difficulties and underestimation of needed materials.  When I created my sample piece it all worked out great and seemed easy enough for my intermediate students to handle.  It would have been if I had enough material for every student to make their rubber mold and cast it in plaster like I had done.  Alas, that was not the case.  I didn’t limit the size of student’s clay models like I should have.  That, along with the fact that there were 25 of them, led to their not being enough casting material for every person to use.  I should have stopped here and just fired their clay slabs, but I was too focused on them learning about casting that I lost sight of the guiding concept, which was to create a narrative artwork.  I should have recognized that the process of casting was not as important as the concept behind the artwork.  Yes I wanted them to learn casting, but not at the expense of creating meaning with their art. So I pushed on.

Plan B was to place the clay slab in a plastic lined box, use the waste clay to form walls and pour a plaster mold around the clay relief.  Then students could dig out the clay and pour more plaster into the mold.  We could then break away the mold and we’d have the positive form that could then be painted.  I had enough plaster for the entire class if it had been mixed correctly and not wasted.  What actually happened was that students mixed their own plaster without paying attention to the ratio of plaster powder to water and their plaster either never set up, and fell apart because it wasn’t strong enough, or they waited too long and the plaster hardened in the mixing bowl before they ever poured it around their clay.  Why did this happen?  Again, I think this was my fault.  I was busy trying to get to each student who needed help with their original clay models or pushing some students to actually develop their image they would sculpt.  I told them as a group how to mix the plaster in my original demonstration and demonstrated it again with the class using the first student’s artwork.  I should have given them each written instructions.  I could have given them each a pre-measured about of plaster to mix, but then that takes away one opportunity to use their math skills.  And they need to use them.  I had one senior who could not figure out how to find out what 1/3rd of 44oz was to know how much water to eliminate before mixing.  She would not even attempt to figure it out.  (This represents a larger problem in the high school population.  That is a story for another time.)  While I was working with some students, others were making their molds or casting from them.  When students leave out the step of applying the releasing agent their castings don’t come out of the mold. 

That led to going back to square one.  This time, instead of starting with clay and building up the design, they started with a plaster block and carved out their design.  This was more difficult and students became frustrated.

Problem 4: All the technical difficulties resulted in final artworks that looked nothing like students had planned and they did not know how to adjust and write a narrative to accompany their new artwork.  They were frustrated with the whole process and didn’t want to think about it anymore.  It was pulling teeth to get them to now write a story about the visual they had created. Especially when they were not happy with what they created.  

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