THE FAR REACHING FINGERS OF THE CLOUD
ONLINE TEACHING AND MENTORING
Jayne Shatz, Maryland Potter
I love teaching ceramics, and I have been doing it for forty years. After retiring from a full time ceramics position, I wanted to continue teaching, but in a more personal and relaxed environment. I have taught practically every level of ceramic student, from kindergarteners to high school, college, and adult continuing ed., each one distinctly unique. I also give workshops at colleges, art centers and museums. When I moved to Maryland, I decided to teach privately in my studio. I have from one to six students at a time, all adults pursuing ceramics. I discovered this is a fantastic approach to teaching. I am in my own studio with all my books, equipment, and supplies. I teach two and four hour mini sessions, as well as two-day intensive workshops. I keep it simple; I don’t fire any student work. The students take home their pieces to continue working on them in their own studios. Therefore, in all my teaching endeavors, I don’t have to administer kiln firings, glaze mixing and studio management- I just teach.
I love this new arrangement, and with a newly found freedom of teaching, I began searching more alternative methods of educating adults. Combined with an incessant love of ceramics and much computer knowledge, it seemed only natural to integrate these two interests and pursue online teaching. With this, I can enjoy teaching ceramics and have fun employing the computer technologies that I find so exciting.
With this is mind, I came across such a situation. The Potters Council was developing an online Mentoring program, and being a member, I dove in!
First, I filled out their detailed application. The process was captivating; they focus on interests, talents, and areas of expertise. Once accepted into the program, they began ferreting out a match. This was a little bit like online dating. In a short period, they procured a counterpart, my Mentee, my online student. With a click of the keyboard, Saundra and Alabama entered into my life.
This next phase was even more engrossing. I read over the Mentor and Mentee contracts, and through email, Saundra and I set up a phone conversation. This was great; she was interesting, funny, excited about the process and absolutely charming. I know charming is an odd word to describe a ceramic student, but this was going to be different from any previous student/teacher relationship I have entered into. It was more like an apprenticeship, yet we would not be in the same room and it would occur online. Having the choice between six months or a year contract, we opted for the full year commitment. That word commitment rang true in my ears. I realized that I could not slough off with this person. I was making a commitment and I would have to stick to it, therefore, her personality really closed the deal. Had she been different and less engaging, I might not have agreed to a full year; she captivated me!
Together, while on the telephone, we went through each line of both contracts, and filled in our remarks. Then separately, we submitted them online to the Potters Council. We established a method of communication that felt good for both of us. We decided to email each other at least once a week. She would discus her needs and I would respond. Well, that immediately changed; we began writing to each other almost daily for the first month. That was good, we got to know each other and became comfortable with our roles. This was a perfect match. Saundra was going to be remodeling part of her house to create a new ceramic studio; I had just written a book on designing ceramic studios. She wanted to learn about ceramic history; I am a ceramic historian. And for her clay work, she was mostly interested in improving her throwing and cone 6 oxidation glazing skills, both are my areas of expertise. So with this in tow, we began working together.
Initially she sent me 12 photos of her work. The photography was too laborious for me to deal with. She did not know how to photograph artwork. She set up her colored pots against a fiery red patterned tablecloth, and sent too many different forms. It was difficult to evaluate. We started lesson #1 on how to photograph artwork. I emailed her some photos of my pottery, displaying the simple background effect and requested she submit three forms, in different views. Quickly she conquered this, sending me effective, clean photos on a gradient background.
distracting background image
clean photo image with gradient background
Then she began working on her studio with her husband. I emailed her the manuscript of my book, and she and her husband read the entire book in two evenings. I knew this woman was serious! During construction she continued emailing me photos of her house, her plans and thoughts for a new studio. With each group of photos, I discussed placement of equipment, shelving, lighting, etc, and slowly helped her design a beautiful new studio that she could live in for many years. She and her husband Joe were exhausted, a bit cash poor and thrilled. It was very satisfying to witness Saundra building her studio from scratch with my input.
When her studio was finally completed, Saundra moved in and began work. By this time, I had started producing short videos on several aspects of clay making, starting with the basics- wedging and centering. I sent them to her originally through YouTube. She learned how to access my YouTube channel and view videos that I had produced prior to our working together. I also continued to send her url’s of other potters demonstration videos for her ongoing training. It is relevant for her to see other ceramists’ techniques. YouTube is an amazing resource for ongoing education. Many ceramists have demonstration videos for viewing, and it’s all free! I also sent her copies of Ceramic Arts Daily’s information. I downloaded a recent excerpt from one of their booklets on glazes and found an article of particular interest to Saundra. She was very excited to receive it from me, and shortly became a member. I keep a folder on my studio computer of articles from CAD, and loop images from the articles during my private workshops.
So began my next series of videos. I produced six different videos: Wedging, Centering, Throwing a Cylinder, Throwing an Angular Bowl, Parts 1 and 2, and Throwing a Wide Bowl. She dedicated this range of ceramics as her priority. After working with Saundra with these videos, I realized their value as teaching devices. I decided to edit them for video production as one video offering the five techniques as a Beginner Series. Years ago, when I began studying digital movie editing and video production, I knew I wanted to document my teaching techniques. Now with the advancement in video cameras and easier software than what was out there fifteen years ago, this possibility became a reality. I now sell this video along with my others.
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The videos were a great teaching tool for Saundra. She would practice throwing while watching my videos. She would watch a segment, then email me about it. We had ongoing discussions about her challenges, as she continually achieved success with each technique. One by one, we dealt with each video, and her throwing skills improved significantly.
By now it was the holiday season, and I was swamped with exhibits, sales, completing work and holiday gatherings. During the months of December though February I move to my Florida home and then travel to the Adirondacks for a yearly snowshoeing event. Saundra was dealing with several family gatherings. Through all this movement, I was able to remain in contact with her through my IPad. I had downloaded all my Saundra files before I left home, and between my tablet and Cloud storage, had I not told Saundra I was traveling, she would have assumed I was in my Maryland studio and office. I am intoxicated with storage technology-just back up and retrieve files from the Cloud.
I am back home in Maryland now and am beginning my new season in earnest. Saundra is right on board, as we resumed our work together. Before I left home in December, she sent me a few new photos of her work.
She was concentrating on her bowl series. When I saw her photos, and some apparent areas that needed attention, I thought of using Photoshop to illustrate my critique. I inserted her images into the software and with a drawing tool I drew a suggested angular base for her bowls. I then selected those areas and moved the sections away that needed to be cut off from the pot. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and in this case, it is true. When Saundra saw the photos, she understood the balance in form that was needed to make her bowls sing. When she emailed me her next group of pots, I smiled at the satisfaction of a job well done, by my illustrious student, Saundra.
Saundra's new angular bowl
She then began trying new glaze combinations and was wavering on her direction. A couple of her pieces had beautiful paintings on them, overlaying a soft beige background. I immediately thought of majolica, and sent her several articles form the internet on the history and techniques of majolica. She was overwhelmed with the synchronicity of our approach to ceramics. She too felt that majolica is what she has been searching for! I closed my eyes and envisioned her glaze testing, studying, writing down results, firing and painting her lovely images.
As we continued towards fulfilling our contractual commitment, I am looking back on this wonderful experience. I know Saundra and I have been quite close, with all the emails about our family’s ups and downs, as well as the conversations on art and ceramics. Our time is up this summer, and I realize how much Saundra has grown as a ceramist, and how much I have grown as a teacher.
The true gift is that we both gained a lifelong friend in the process.