painting clay, having fun

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

At Grey Coat Hospital in London, the Art department has found an innovative way to offer more skills development for their Year 12 students, by running an informal after-school Art Club.

On Monday afternoons, once school is finished at 3.30pm, the Year 12 art students congregate in the bright upstairs art room. The room has a wall of windows looking out over the city, and as dusk fell outside one November Monday, Phillipa Prince, the Head of Art, demonstrated painting clay while still wet.

This method uses decorative slip to paint colour onto clay that has been rolled out flat, not yet formed, and not yet fired. Phillipa showed the group how you can add texture to the clay using a variety of ordinary household materials (bubble wrap, feathers, woven bamboo, engraved with pencil). The slip can be painted onto the clay, or painted first onto newspaper and then pressed onto the clay, or painted in sections. The possibilities are endless, really. Once a pattern or series of designs and colours have been added to the clay, it can be shaped into a form (a small vase perhaps), or left flat like a tile, to dry. Phillipa explained that this technique allows layers to be built up over time. Once the shapes have been fired in the kiln (something the group will be doing in the next few weeks), glazes can be added too. The results are complex, interesting forms that could be used as potential presents or gifts.

After the demonstration, the students were able to experiment with their own designs. Each had a flat piece of clay to which they could add colour or texture. Everyone worked happily, discussing their designs as they went along, asking Phillipa for advice or thoughts. Towards the end of the session, shapes began to form out of the flat clay as the students manipulated vases, jars, and spirals.

After the session I spoke with Clare Burnett, the other Art teacher who helps run the Art Club, about the purpose of such sessions. She explained:

“What we realised is that they [the students] do a lot of personal investigations in GCSE but the danger of doing project after project is that they go straight into more investigation just relying on what they’ve learnt before and they don’t actually expand their repertoire. Pottery after school has been really fun– it’s nice for them to have a bit of relaxation, allows them to expand their sculpture skills and we’ve got the kiln”.

The Year 12 students I spoke to explained what they felt the purpose of the class was:

Right now we’re doing pottery. We just learn basic skills. The first skill we learnt was making normal thumb pots. Then learning how to use the wheel. Yesterday we learnt how to use slip and how you can paint onto clay when it is dried or when it is wet. It is just adding to your book of skills that you can use in Year 13.

It is good that we are building up skill sets.

They are helpful because I have never done any of the things that they have. It is exposing me to different things apart from what I know.

Art Club is therefore a way to both introduce students to techniques they may not have encountered before, and to let the students develop their interests in multiple art forms. The session I witnessed was relaxed and fun, the students free to experiment, make mistakes, and develop ideas. Even though the club is extra-curricular, it clearly has an important place in the wider goals of the art department.

TATE ambassadors

Talking to young women at Grey Coat Hospital School about their involvement in the Tate Collective was a brilliant start to my three day visit. A striking aspect of the discussion was their articulation of the way their involvement in the project changed their engagement with art and galleries. One student vividly described her anxiety about going into a gallery and looking at art, feeling that she just was not confident that she could interpret the work. Through participation in the project the students felt that they could now trust that their own interpretation had value and that actually the art may have more than one meaning. This is a lesson they clearly felt also helped them more broadly in their academic studies. They felt they were more able to interpret ideas rather than thinking of subjects, like History, as being a set of facts set in stone. Another interesting impact was linked to the Tate Loud project which the students enthused about. They also believed this changed the way other young people felt about galleries, making the space vibrate with music. The links to contemporary exhibitions of work had also importantly impacted on their own arts practice. As artist teacher, Clare Burnett, commented:
The students are so lucky to be at school right in the middle of London, surrounded by international-quality art.  We see open minded students who are prepared to take risks and are confident in expressing their contemporary viewpoints visually.
The school also supports students who have chosen to be Tate Ambassadors, creating displays and raising other students’ awareness of the galleries on the school’s doorstep. These students wear yellow tags as pictured below, created by the DT department. These signal that the ambassadors can share information and enthusiasm about current Tate exhibitions to their peers. This experience clearly pushes the ambassadors into thinking from the point of view of artists, curators and gallery staff in order to achieve their goals and therefore helps them understand the range of careers associated with galleries and wider creative industries.


Tate Ambassador Tags at Grey Coats Hospital School