Practicing Art During the Pandemic: Teaching Pottery Online

Willi and friends firing his Mashiko style climbing kiln

Willi Singleton in Conversation with MFAIA Lead Faculty, Ruth Wallen

Willi Singleton has been wood-firing his climbing kiln in Kempton, Pennsylvania for thirty-three years, using mostly clay taken from Hawk Mountain mixed with Stancill’s clay from the northern Chesapeake coast.  Willi studied Visual Art at The Evergreen State College 1981 before pursuing wood-fired ceramics in Japan from 1981 to 1987.  He built his Mashiko style climbing kiln on family land below Hawk Mountain in 1987, and has maintained his studio there ever since.  After receiving his MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from Goddard College in 2016 he was promoted to assistant professor of art at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA, where he teaches ceramics.  

“I think of my work as a gentle rebellion against the anonymity of objects in the world today,” Willi says. “In our daily lives we are surrounded by anonymous (even if ‘branded’) manufactured objects that may be convenient to use but disconnected from any sense of place.  In my work, I make things which are embedded in place; my materials are my umbilical connection to this valley in which I live and work, my processes are my connection to ceramics history (largely Asian ceramics history), and my finished pots are my connection to users of my pots around the world.  Both metaphorically and in concrete terms, my pieces are my place.” 

Willi Singleton, Ceramic Vessel Vase

Our conversation was inspired by an email exchange in which Willi remarked that his Goddard MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) studies gave him a model when he suddenly found himself teaching ceramics online.

Ruth Wallen: I’m glad to hear that your students have come through with resilience and innovation for the most part. Can you elaborate on your recent email about your experiences teaching online?

Willi Singleton:  For lack of a better world, my Goddard experience gave me a playbook to go to when all of a sudden, I had four days to get my classes moved online.  I had been immersed in this type of learning already during my Goddard experience. The MFAIA of course, predates readily accessible internet, but it has evolved over the decades to show how teaching/learning can happen without being in the same room. It sounds absolutely ludicrous to say that I’m teaching pottery online, but I am. 

Ruth: Can you say more about your approach to teaching online?

Willi: It is working with clay, but it’s certainly not vessel oriented. We’d gotten to about the fifth project when everybody had basically one afternoon to clear out and go home. Students had already developed some basic technical knowledge of how to deal with the material.

The projects that I quickly devised make use of the current situation. The first one was a response to the Coronavirus itself as a biological artifact. I harvested some images online of the Coronavirus and encouraged people to look at these images and respond with clay creating a three-dimensional composition, latching on to whatever aspects of that physical form, displayed under great magnification, that they wanted to. Students came up with really innovative ways of dealing with this construction. There was no possibility that their work would go into kiln him because they’re all working at some distance. They didn’t have to worry about making thin walls so that structures that would withstand the drying and firing process. One woman used toothpicks to attach very otherwise tenuously joined pieces of clay together. It was kind of like decorating a cake, but using raw clay. Different people came up with different solutions. I encouraged them to deviate from realistic depiction. 

Student response to the assignment to create a composition based on images of the Coronavirus. Made with toothpicks and clay

I thought would be fun was to think of their projects as an ephemeral sculpture. If you remember former student, Barbara Korecki, she was doing these pieces of clay that she put in her backyard and let melt back into the earth. I was thinking that that kind of approach would be sort of metaphorical, nature running its course and reclaiming the material, in this case with the corona virus, sort of taking it back, out of the human circulation after a period of time.  It would be a reminder to us that this is all going to pass, that we’ll get through it.  It is interesting to see how the forms respond to a natural environment like rain or snow and ice, freezing and thawing, or various critters walking through an area or knocking it over, where this piece might be left to decay. One woman living in Yonkers, New York, found that squirrels were climbing all the way up to her sixth-floor apartment window and knocking the piece off the window. 

Ruth: It is interesting to me how this project ends up relating to place, to the place that the students are living, a concept that I recall being important in your Goddard studies.   Do you want to say more?

Willi: Over the eight years I have been teaching at Cedar Crest College, I have tried to sneak more and more of my favorite thinkers, writers and artists into my classes.  One idea I focused on during my Goddard studies, that I have made central to my teaching strategies is the concept of place, that Yi Fu Tuan describes as location plus meaning.  The experientially derived connection to place is something I like to offer as a contrast to self/individual as a focus of art making.  Designing a ceramics class that reaches beyond practical aspects of material to conceptual grounding is important to me, but even the practical aspects can relay these deeper concepts, which is the point of utilizing locally sourced clays for about half of my assignments, so students are physically confronting the place, as they shape their projects and themselves.

Ruth: Let’s go back to your classes and how you use clay as a way of exploring ideas.

Willi: There were two more projects after that, basically using clay as a way of sketching out ideas. The next project was a modular project where students came up with some kind of modular unit that they would then replicate in twenty or thirty pieces, of similar shapes. They could make whatever shape they wanted and then put the pieces together, to create some kind of interesting visual composition. I used two analogies—of a Lincoln Logs set for a more architectural piece, if you wanted to play nice or a bird’s nest, gathering things together if you wanted to be looser in the construction. 

Ruth:  These both sound like great projects.  Do you have other ideas for the future?  

Willi: Cedar Crest now is thinking of going online in the fall for the semester, in which case I would have to come up with whole semester’s worth of clay projects. This makes me even more glad that I did the Goddard MFAIA Program.  I’d like to create a whole new syllabus based on interdisciplinary ideas, connecting clay with big ideas, the shape of society or the shape of the world that we live in, addressing themes like climate change, the tenuous social safety net, and collapsing systems.

The Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) program at Goddard College is a unique graduate experience at the intersection of contemporary art practice and Goddard’s landmark method of low-residency, human-centered learning and teaching. Information about Admissions to the program is available at goddard.edu

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