Medford fifth graders take the wheel at OAC for clay workshop

Nearly a dozen Medford Elementary fifth graders were able to try their hands at the wheels in the basement of the Owatonna Arts Center Tuesday and learn from experienced instructors as part of a new effort by the OAC to expose local youth to art.

The idea for this workshop sprang forth from an OAC education committee, and the arts center communicated with Pam Schmidt, Medford’s elementary art teacher, to select 10 students to pilot this program, said Patti Braasch-Turi, a member of the committee. The students who enrolled in the workshop have already exhibited an interest in — and aptitude for — art.

The goal is to bring the program back again this fall, then continue it in the winter and spring with students from other schools, like Owatonna, Blooming Prairie, and St. Mary’s, she said. Tuesday was the first meeting of the five-week clay course, after the initial start April 3 had to be postponed due to a snowstorm.

The Medford Bus Company buses students to the OAC after school Tuesday afternoons, then parents pick up their children, so the class is a commitment for students and families, said Silvan Durben, creative director of the OAC.

“We wanted kids who are really excited about doing this,” since it is a scholarship program, valued at roughly $170 per student including instruction, materials, and snacks, Durben said.

“I’m glad I got picked,” said Lydia Heiderscheidt. “It’s a fun experience.”

Heiderscheidt’s goal in the class is to “make as many pots as I can,” and while the top hurdle on Day One was “not knowing what to do next,” she also picked up plenty of helpful tips from the instructor, Judy Srsen, the OAC’s new education coordinator, Karly Ohnstad, and Durben, she said. “I’d much rather do (clay) than paint, and it’s really cool to see what you get in the end.”

Students in the OAC workshop actually just began working with clay in their courses in Medford, so this class falls at a appropriate time, Ohnstad said. Participants will almost assuredly discuss what they’re learning with their parents, as well, so this “connects all the age ranges in the community.”

The 10 participants will display their work next month in the arts center, and students of this age are “receptive to” new methods, Durben said. “We can open their eyes to studio art.”

“This is a good age,” Braasch-Turi seconded. “It’s an excitable group, open to ideas.”

Addison Vandereide joined the pottery course because “I’ve always liked art, and I thought this would be a challenge for me,” she said. Early on Tuesday, she was certainly running into stumbling blocks, as “shaping it is the hardest part.”

For Amanda Bock, “getting centered” was her main obstacle, she said. Despite those frustrations that sent her back to the drawing board a couple times, “I like the clay, how it feels—squishy.”

“The most important thing is centering the clay on the wheel,” Srsen said. “Otherwise, you won’t have a round pot.”

“Aim for the center as much as you can when you throw your ball,” Ohnstad suggested. Additionally, “if it’s hot in your hands, add water.”

Srsen demonstrated the process of creating a bowl from a lump of clay Tuesday, advising them to “drill straight down to make an opening.”

“Try not to drill the back, because you want a bottom on your bowl,” Srsen said. “Have your nose right on the pot, so you can see what you’re doing.”

She also illustrated how to enlarge the center of the bowl, as well as using a sponge to smooth out imperfections.

“There are only about 350 things you need to remember,” Srsen joked.

“If it doesn’t work the first few times, don’t be discouraged,” Durben advised students. “Even the most professional potters develop by trial and error.”

By providing instruction, structure, and supervision, those in this class should find success in what can be an unforgiving medium, he said. Therefore, rather than becoming disenchanted with clay, these students may “develop a lifelong passion for it.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.