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From Subsoil to Sublime Sculptures

With clay sourced from campus grounds, Assistant Professor Anna Mayer challenges her students’ ceramic process.

Hauling wheelbarrows full of buckets, UH School of Art students in Anna Mayer’s Clay Processes sculpture class headed down Wheeler Street, past the dark green tarps and bright orange plastic barriers. They approached the nearby construction site, where mounds of uprooted dirt leaned against slabs of concrete that were once sidewalks. With their bare hands and rolled-up sleeves, the students grabbed huge chunks of damp clay out of the ground and loaded their buckets with the gray material to later break down, strain, knead, build and bake into stunning works. 

Mayer, an accomplished sculptor with a background in ceramics and site-specific projects, designed the project to encourage students to learn more about the technical aspects of ceramics. She wanted to connect students to the material’s geological timeframe, so they could have a better understanding of clay’s value and the patience needed to work with it.

“Usually, students are working with clay they buy at the store,” Mayer says. “But, ultimately, clay comes from the earth. Pulling the clay out yourself helps make the connection between the medium of ceramics and our planet.”

Students learned how to independently source and process “wild clay” to an optimally plastic state. Now, they will explore the material’s essence and create diverse pieces, ranging from representations of celestial formations to an unbaked work that one student sculpted and then returned to its source at the UH construction site.

Art and art history student Courtney Khim, who participated in the sourcing, said the site-specific project pushed her to contemplate the word “land.” As a native Houstonian, processing clay from her hometown instilled her with pride and a better appreciation for Houston’s history and the Third Ward neighborhood’s rich culture. She plans to use this experience to create symbols representing native plants and items the Third Ward is known for.

“The School of Art and this project have made me think more in depth about the community outside of my campus,” she says. “Both have challenged me to be open-minded and think of other ways I can add to or change my creative processes.”

Ultimately, Mayer wants her students to engage with what’s below the surface and sensitize themselves to the natural and non-built environment.

“There are many directions students can go when it comes to ceramics,” Mayer says. “I hope to give students the opportunity to expand their expectations of the material and recognize clay’s literal and metaphorical relationship to the ground beneath us.”