A Practical Approach to Pottery at Summer Camp

by Lawrence R. Kravitz

A ceramic program at camp can be an exciting and expanding experience for campers. Camp is a perfect environment for introducing children to clay and the thrill of forming, decorating, and firing. However, a successful ceramic program at camp demands practical proven procedures and expedients to manage and process a large quantity of small clay objects neatly, quickly, and safely.

The Program

Camp Louise in western Maryland is a resident summer camp for girls with a very popular pottery program. The camp hosts about 1,300 children during eight weeks of summer. About fifty to seventy children per day attend pottery — and about thirty-six days of the whole summer schedule include pottery as a daily activity. A typical class will have ten to fourteen girls — four at electric potter’s wheels and the remainder creating hand-built pieces — and lasts approximately fifty minutes. Three persons supervise and instruct — one full-time potter, a full-time assigned counselor, and a rotation of guest artists or adult helpers.
Hand-built forms include salt and pepper shakers from pinch pots, coil construction, and a variety of slab items including conventional plaques, plates, mold, and free-formed cylinders, and occasionally an imaginative, fanciful, and creative piece within the guidelines for the class. Instruction at the wheel concentrates on forming the dome of clay and pulling up the clay wall to form a cylinder. Some girls elect to form a plate at the wheel.

Practice and experience have demonstrated a need to process and fire both greenware and glazed bisque objects quickly to clear the limited storage space and to return the completed object to the camper. The Camp Louise pottery program strives to be sure that all campers create a piece to take home — a piece that the child is proud of and the family keeps as a memory of the camp experience.

A Practical Approach

Camp Louise has developed several practical approaches to streamline the process. The following various procedures and expedients have evolved over time to create a ceramic program that is efficient:

1. Standardize raw materials.
Use wet stoneware clay and commercial premixed glazes and underglazes in a selection of assorted colors. Campers pick their own colors to decorate their pieces with brushes. A bucket of transparent glaze is available for dipping mugs and bowls when these will be used with food or beverages. Mugs, plates, and bowls where the surface is in contact with food or the mouth must be coated with a food-safe glaze — however, be careful to leave the bottom or foot free of glaze to avoid bonding the object to the kiln shelf. The camp uses about 2,450 pounds of clay and about thirty-six pints of assorted glazes and underglazes during a season.

2. Dry and fire slowly.
Dry all hand-built and wheel-thrown greenware immediately — both glazed and unglazed — overnight in the kiln, with bottom thermostat set on lowest heat. Boost temperatures in increments during the second day to complete firings in less than two days. Camp Louise has four kilns — which permits a rotation of two kilns at a time. The loss rate for pieces that are quick dried in the kiln is estimated as one object in 360 items, about seven items for the whole summer. The loss during bisque firing is mild because the piece breaks in place. The loss during a glaze firing is explosive and can be attributed to pieces being too thick and potential thermal shock being too close to the electrical filaments.

3. Glaze immediately.
Glaze hand-built, wet greenware immediately — bypassing the intermediate and separate bisque firing. Many campers have only one assigned class so such projects must be formed, decorated, and completed in one class. Unglazed objects are bisque fired to Cone 04, and all glaze work is fired to Cone 4. Firing glazed greenware to completion at Cone 4 frees up some scarce kiln capacity. Glaze quality of single-fired objects is good.

4. Use bats.
Use masonite bats on electric potter’s wheels, and have the campers pay particular attention to trimming wet clay while pulling up the pot, cylinder, bowl, or dish. If this is done properly, there is no need for subsequent trimming of leather hard objects off the wheel — aside from sanding cutting edges. A wire can be used to cut the bottom loose from the bat. The wet clay piece is left on the bat; the bat is removed from the wheel head; and the piece remains on the masonite bat for quick drying.

5. Accelerate drying.
Accelerate drying of pieces on bats overnight. This allows you to remove the green pots from the bat the next morning — the pieces can continue drying on a ware cart. The bats are now ready to be used again for the next day’s work. You can accelerate drying by putting the bats in the kiln room to take advantage of the warmth and, if space permits, put bats on the lids of kilns that are percolating at the lowest heat. If any kiln is empty, a cone is set to allow firing of the top thermostat at lowest heat. As each ceramic piece is dry enough to release from the bat, a new bat with a wet piece is placed on the lid. Pots generally have smooth bottoms. Such pots are loaded and bisque fired on the second day — meaning a three-day turn around. Camp Louise has thirty bats in service. Bats shrink slightly as a consequence of the heat, but you can rehydrate the bat by simply washing the surface.

6. Incorporate guest artists.
Incorporate a rotation of guest artists into your program. Local artists and teachers introduce fresh artistic perspective and a personalized portfolio of mature projects to retain and challenge children’s interests — particularly the repeaters at camp. This year at Camp Louise guest artists introduced clay puppets from slab, rattles from pinch pots, fanciful animals with a combination of slab for the torso and coils for the limbs, and replicas of flowers and bouquets.

7. Take advantage of free time.
Invite campers to return to the clay studio during their free time to glaze bisque ware, especially those pieces that were wheel thrown.

8. Determine work flow.
Design the flow of work around work stations — separate stations for hand-building, glazing, and temporary storage for unglazed and glazed greenware and glazed bisque objects ready for loading in the kilns. Children can move their own items on simple wood slats from station to station.

9. Use novel materials.
Campers can use polymer clay for sculpting on the final day of camp sessions when the projected schedule does not permit conventional firing of ordinary clay. Polymer clay can be oven fired for a timely return of completed objects to the children.

10. Improve standard tools.
Use a single, large, and heavy canvas drop cloth to cover each complete hand-form table top to roll out clay slabs so several campers at the same table do not have separate small drop clothes shifting and crinkling to distract them and to rearrange periodically. One drop cloth can be used for red stoneware on one side and for a beige stoneware on the reverse side.

An Experiment in Process

The ceramic program at Camp Louise continues to be an experiment in process. Because the campers have less than fifty minutes at the potter’s wheel to form and pull up clay, the camp is experimenting with both concurrent demonstration and execution and consecutive demonstration and execution. Effectiveness of such instruction seems to depend on campers’ ages, with the concurrent demonstration more effective with younger children. Additionally, the camp has used stoneware with different levels of grog for wheel throwing. Clay with more grog retains its shape longer; clay with less grog has less resistance when pulled. Children with no experience often massage the clay too long and do not pull up the clay within the requisite two to three pulls before the clay collapses. For them, clay with more grog works better.

Camp Louise continues to examine and re-examine its facilities. Hand-building and glazing are done outdoors in the shade — where the work area is more than adequate. This outside work area is adjacent to the pottery building where the potter’s wheels, kilns, and stockpile of clay and glazes are housed. Fortuitously, the weather cooperated this past season. In the event of rain, indoor work space is very limited. Because of this, the camp is expanding the inside work area — renovating a room as an inclement work area and fabricating shelving to display completed bisque. This new shelving will free up table space to use for pieces ready for the kiln.

Another idea under consideration is the training, development, and encouragement of home grown apprentice artists to lead a pottery program as counselors. These young artists — high school juniors and seniors who might be interested in participating in the camp’s CIT program — will assure the camp of an adequate staff at pottery. With more time spent at the pottery, proper training, greater responsibility, and love for clay, these young counselors in training would have the enthusiasm, creativity, and motivation to lead the pottery program. There is certainly demonstrated interest and skill in pottery — many of the campers continue to participate in community and scholastic clay programs as a result of their introduction to pottery at camp.

Camp Louise — with good planning and organization — offers a very popular pottery program — a program that encourages creativity and teaches an intriguing artistic technique. The children leave camp with an appreciation of the fine arts, a boost in self-confidence and pride, and a beautiful ceramic piece to take home to their families.

A Pottery Program for Summer Camp
Camp Louise enjoys existing facilities — including sufficient covered and open air work areas, ventilation, electrical system, plumbing, and accessibility to living areas and other camp activities. The camp pottery has evolved — with the help of the author — into a prototypical academic or professional studio with much the same mechanical and electrical tools. To maintain and grow a sophisticated pottery program, a camp needs an experienced potter, ceramic educator, or an assertive advanced art student in terms of proposing engaging projects and using these professional tools. The ceramic program at the Camp Louise facility is designed to inspire creativity and self-confidence and benefits from a very cooperative and collaborative senior management. The camp enjoys repeat campers, and it is an engaging challenge for the pottery staff to provide new and challenging assignments each year to satisfy the expanding interests and attention of these children and adolescents.

As resources, there are excellent textbooks on handbuilding and wheel techniques — along with suitable projects. Another great resource at the camp is the visiting artist program. These artists inspire innovation and growth in both the studio and program.

Equipment, tools, and materials are supplied by a single retailer/distributor in nearby Baltimore. The camp has four large electric kilns, four new Brent electric potter’s wheels, and the requisite pottery tools found in typical supply catalogs. The camp uses wet packaged local Standard stoneware clays Cone 4 to 10, wet packaged non-toxic Campbell stoneware glazes Cone 4 to 6, American Art Clay Company, Inc. Cone 6 underglazes. Camp Louise makes periodic capital improvements and is introducing a Scott Creek four-inch mechanical clay coil extruder into the program this year.

Costs to consider to sustain an existing pottery program include:

  • Salaries for lead potter, assistants, and counselors
  • Utility costs for water and electricity
  • 2,400 pounds clay — approximately 0
  • 36 pints glaze — approximately 0
  • Miscellaneous tools and supplies — approximately 0
  • Costs for maintenance and custodial care

Lawrence R. Kravitz is a retired Army officer and civilian analyst from the U.S. Army. In retirement, he does pottery at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, and is lead potter at Camp Louise.

Originally published in the 2004 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

 

Tags: art