Spotlight: Building a Foundation

Ceramics Monthly: Could you discuss the high-school ceramics program at Chenango Valley Central School District (CV), in Binghamton, New York, and how the students are impacted?

Andrew Fitzsimmons (above right): The ceramics program is structured around building skill and understanding, with a foundation in mastery of material and methods. I have always embraced the approach that the teaching of art itself is secondary. What’s first and most significant is teaching students how to be good human beings.

Each ceramics level within the program is supported with a course syllabus. Projects are outlined in lesson plans and assessed through rubrics. The studio is a valuable environment to learn through creation. My students understand that there are no mistakes, only opportunities! I treat each student as an individual with their own understanding and skill level. When the students are in the process of developing their work, I put an emphasis on creating past the goals of the assignment by fostering an atmosphere where they feel comfortable exploring their unique imagery, styles, content, and various techniques. The ceramics studio is dramatically different from any other academic environment in public education. The measure of students’ achievement and success is assessed through the process of creation, not test scores.

CM: Could you highlight one student who has gone on to pursue a degree in ceramics?

AF: A former student of mine, Mark Gallo (above left), who recently completed his junior year as a ceramics major at Alfred University, stopped by my home studio to catch up. Mark is one of those unique students who embraces the studio environment. From the moment he first threw on the wheel, his clay journey would be influenced by the opportunity to stretch himself and his ideas. He is representative of the CV program, and I was happy to have this time with him in my studio, talking pots. Avoiding the studio mess, Mark wedged the ball of clay I handed him, and we continued our conversation while working.

Over the hum of the wheels, the discussion centered around his take on the CV ceramics program, his description of gaining the confidence needed in his throwing techniques to be able to explore shapes, and what kind of artist he wanted to be at Alfred. Mark elaborated, “at Alfred I am endlessly curious and open to all avenues of creating, while using the many resources I’m given to answer questions about my work. After Alfred I want to stay authentic to myself and use what I’ve learned to change and adapt to new questions, always exploring and moving forward.”

As Mark continued to reflect on his high-school experience, he looked up with satisfaction in his eyes, with a small smile in the corner of his mouth, and said, “The great thing about the program is that I’ve seen athletes, art kids, theater kids, smart kids, all of them come together and sit down in the same class. It didn’t matter where they came from, or what it was about, it was just all walks of life would come in and throw together.” As Mark nodded and returned to throwing, I could feel the same satisfaction roll over me.

Out of everything the CV ceramics program accomplishes, this is by far the most important and notable aspect of what we do in the classroom; we find ways of celebrating our students’ visual voices by nurturing who they are.

Photo: Andrew Hudock.

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