It’s a Friday afternoon in a classroom at Tacoma’s Sherman Elementary, and Anna Rowley’s third-graders are making a bit of a mess. But that’s totally OK – in fact, that’s the idea – because they’re making art, and not just any art. They’re halfway through a residency taught by renowned Tacoma clay artist Yuki Nakamura, and they’re learning about glazes in preparation for creating temporary and permanent art installations.
The work is a unique collaboration between the children, a professional artist and the parents and teachers who want to see art happen in their school, despite a lack of district funding.
“We were first and foremost looking for an artist who could inspire our children,” explained Sherman principal Anne Tsuneishi.
The school, which had an artist-in-residence program a few years ago, sent out a call for local artists in the fall, and more than 40 responded. Tsuneishi, school staff and the Parent Teacher Student Association (which funded the residency) were looking for someone who could teach children from kindergarten through fifth grade, and weave in the school’s core values of community, academic rigor, collaboration, peace and safety, Tsuneishi said.
Born in Japan, Nakamura is a Japanese-born Tacoma artist whose work has been shown in Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery and Aqua Art Miami, among others. She also has public art pieces at sites such as the Tacoma Convention Center and a recent show at the University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Gallery. With smooth, minimalist sculpted ceramic shapes, she creates installations that have layers of deeper meaning, such as environmental allusions or homages to lost loved ones. She’s won numerous awards and grants, and has had residencies in Italy and France as well as the Museum of Glass.
So to have her talent, skill and passion at the service of Sherman’s 358 children is an artistic experience many Tacoma students will never have.
“I wish the arts could be funded districtwide,” said Tsuneishi, explaining that while elementary schools have music teachers on staff, they don’t usually have art teachers.
For schools to offer art, they either have to have a PTA that can fund a teacher (such as at Sherman), a PTA-organized tuition-based after-school classes (such as at Lowell and Crescent Heights), in-class parent volunteer teachers (such as at Washington-Hoyt) or classroom teachers who have the time, resources and desire to include art.
So Nakamura’s residency is unusual. From February through May, she’ll give each of the 18 classrooms two slots a week, working first with third- to fifth-graders, then with the younger students. After teaching basic skills and concepts such as rolling clay, making coils, building, sticking with slip and sculpting shapes for practice, she will guide students into creating a 3-inch-high hollow ball. Once these are all fired, the students will write a note to their future selves about their current lives and put it inside the ball, which will serve as a time capsule, to be opened after 10 years. The students will paint the balls, and all 358 will be arranged in May by Nakamura in a kind of temporary rock garden, possibly outside on the green running field on the school’s north side. Students will then take their own time capsules home.
The other part to the residency is the creation of a permanent installation that has a little more of Nakamura’s own aesthetic. For each classroom, the artist has made a giant oval ball, about the size of a football, in which they’ll place more “time capsule” notes, and which each class will paint with their own design. These large capsules will have a permanent home inside the school, possibly in the library, by the start of the next school year.
The students also will also teach their families their new ceramic skills at a school art event in May.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Rowley, watching her class work. “It gives students the opportunity to explore art in a way that’s not typically done in a classroom (due to) the materials or length of projects. The benefit of having a professional artist is that they really know their craft; they have experience, it’s what they do for a living. I think it really inspires the kids.”
The kids think so, too.
“I never even touched clay before,” said Kess Rose Brown, painting skin-color glaze onto a tile made in the shape of her own face. Brown has already learned that small pieces of clay can break off in the firing process – namely, strands of her tile’s hair – but is confident that “Miss Yuki can stick them back on.”
For Emma Glazebrook, who was busy making a model of Mayzie the Bird from the musical “Seussical,” it’s been different from the art she normally does.
“I really like it because I’ve been painting for a long time,” she said. “With clay, you have to roll it up to make the different shapes.”
Ezekiel Behrends, meanwhile, is hard at work painting a giant volcano of concentric coils with the help of a friend.
“I tried to make it higher, but it fell down,” Behrends said. “You have to put a big base to make it sturdy, then add smaller and smaller and smaller pieces.” His next challenge: how to paint the inside when the brush doesn’t reach the bottom.
Next to him, Lyrice Lopez was already thinking about what he’d put in his time capsule: “I’m going to write all about life when I was little: my pets, my mom and dad,” he said.
As the students put wet sculptures on the drying table and clean up their messes, Nakamura goes around putting lids back on bottles and touching up paintwork. Despite the initial challenge of creating a project for so many different ages, she’s found the residency good for her own art as well.
“My work is sometimes without color, maybe too controlling,” she said shyly. “So I like how the kids paint the balls with all colors together, in layers. It’s maybe good for me and my work.”
And she thinks having a non-teacher artist instruct art is good for how children learn and create.
“I’m not a regular teacher, I want the kids to be open and free,” Nakamura said. “School often has so many rules. Here they can be free and enjoy their work.”
And they can also dream.
“When we grow up, we’re going to be clay artists,” said Mathew Bander about himself and his friend Courtland Shupien. “We thought we’d go to college, then get a job as artists.”
“After I finish playing league baseball,” added Shupien.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts