Clay for the Kiln-Less: African Amulets

By Delia-Schurk, Laurel | Arts & Activities, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Clay for the Kiln-Less: African Amulets


Delia-Schurk, Laurel, Arts & Activities


LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Upper-elementary and middle-schoolers will ...

* experience on economical, kiln-less version of day.

* create an important symbol in African art---the mask as ah amulet.

* identify the cultural and philosophical ideas reflected in their pieces.

MATERIALS

* Salt dough (see recipe)

* Small wooden meat skewers

* Plastic forks

* Mat board (small, flat-cut pieces)

* Spatula and small bowls of extra flour

* Baking sheets

* Interesting relief items for pressing into clay

* Tempera paint and stiff paintbrushes

* Sponges

Attempting sculpture in an inner-city school with no kiln has opened up a new set of hurdles to surmount. The student enrollment is made up of kindergarten through eighth-graders, most of whose prior media experience consisted of little more than crayons, markers and colored paper. I wanted to share a new experience with my students for the observance of Black History Month while still covering one of the most enjoyable aspects of African art--the mask.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I also wanted the project to be a sure success, as this might, for some, be their first experience with any claylike substance. In order to assure a positive experience for other children, I needed a foolproof lesson.

As my budget would not allow any of the new air- or water-hardening materials, I found myself digging up the old salt-and-flour dough recipes. Since time is always an issue with 50-minute art periods, I made up the recipe at home in my bread-maker, using the recipe in the sidebar on the opposite page.

I have found that individually portioning the clay before class saves time and avoids arguments regarding "unfair" amounts. I generally give each student a blob of clay slightly larger than a golf ball. This keeps the sizes somewhat uniform for baking time, and also assures the pieces will not be too cumbersome should students choose to wear them around their necks.

We had already viewed slides and talked about African masks and talismans, with a short design review involving the rhythmic use of dots and parallel lines, and the simplistic use of large and small geometric shapes. We were ready to begin.

Students should tear off approximately one-quarter of their allotted amount of clay and set it aside. This will be saved for facial features and decorative add-ons.

Have students roll the larger amount in the palms of their hands, making a sphere (similar to making a snowball). Have them flatten the spherical form on the desktop, using the heel of their hand. The clay should not stick to standard plastic-laminate tabletops unless it is too wet, in which case a little flour can be wedged into the clay media. For those of you who are faint of heart, a small amount of flour can be spread on the work surface before the students begin.

A word to the wise here: It would behoove you to assure the workable consistency of this media beforehand, as some students, if allowed the option, will become more entranced with the flour play than the creation itself.

Using a paper cutter to secure a perfectly straight edge on a piece of mat board or cardboard, tap around the edges of the flattened shape. This compresses the dough and prevents the edges from getting too thin and brittle. A suggested thickness for this particular project would be approximately .25-inch thick.

Students should, at this point, decide on a basic symmetrical shape for their mask, and repeatedly tap and compress the outside edges of the flattened dough until the desired basic facial shape is attained.

Using the small piece that was set aside, start with a nose in the central area of the mask. Try to encourage a definite triangle or rectangle shape for your nose so as to avoid the round-nosed "Bozo the Clown" appearance. …

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