Ceramics Monthly: What inspired you to join together to create The Clay Siblings’ Project?
Gerald A. Brown and Mike Tavares: The project happened so naturally. We both attended Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, with an interest in sculptural work. Though we would start off on different paths, Mike would find the ceramics studio late in his freshman year and Gerald following in her sophomore year. Having built a general understanding about the studio and the nuances of the material, Mike offered guidance as Gerald settled into the studio. From there a brother/sister bond developed.
Around the same time, friendships with graduate students Peter Smith and Danielle Ruggiero organically emerged. As Mike built a relationship with Pete, Gerald developed a friendship with Danielle. We grew close with the older siblings, creating a dynamic that would establish the core foundation of what a clay sibling relationship would look like. It was important for both of us to challenge each other within and outside of the field while just growing close as best buds.
CM: Describe a Clay Siblings visit to a high school classroom. What do you hope to share with the students you interact with?
GAB and MT: When we enter schools, our number one rule is to make sure that what we are demonstrating is not a magic trick; it is a skill that is attainable. We try to make sure the high school kids are touching clay as much as we are. We are constantly walking them through every step while unlocking a tactile sensitivity that they may not know they had. Initially, some students are on their back feet, unsure but curious. The workshops are very organic and the point of the visit is not determined by the specific projects the students will make. Each sibling brings something that’s specific and integral to their practice, so it’s personal and leans to the strengths they have.
We are intentional about our team maintaining a close age range with the students we visit and mentor, so we can easily relate and speak to things within our generation. The number of siblings in a cohort fluctuates depending on how many schools we work with and the schools’ student population. We try to aim for three or four siblings per school generally. This allows each workshop to be fluid and include interests like music, film, sports, etc., breaking down the wall of skepticism and allowing the students to let their guards down. This formation of trust is so crucial and transforms the workshop environment from an ordinary classroom to a safe haven. It is so powerful that by the end, there are students teaching each other what they just learned. Even other teachers want to join in. This simple gesture brings new life into the school and changes what is possible.
CM: Can you discuss the expansion of the project throughout the clay community? How many siblings are there currently? How do the siblings connect and serve their communities?
GAB and MT: When we first launched the project in 2017, during the week of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Portland, Oregon, we were the only two artists leading workshops. We partnered with two local schools that had ceramic programs. We spent two full days, one at each school, talking to multiple students in multiple grades about the field of ceramics and demonstrating some techniques.
Reflecting on the positive energy from the ceramics community, we decided to expand the project to reach more students. We started recruiting bachelor of fine arts and post-baccalaureate students from universities located within the region near the conference city in order to visit more classrooms. In addition, we started partnering with clay suppliers and other art organizations to get donated clay, wheels, and other materials to allow more schools to participate. This was such an important factor because we wanted to give any school the opportunity to have a Clay Siblings visit, regardless of their current classroom facilities or art resources.
In the past four years, we have worked with 9 high schools, 3 community centers, and 20 siblings. Every year, we are able to try new initiatives to better serve the students and improve our impact on the community.
CM: Since much of your outreach has revolved around NCECA conference programming and host cities, how do you continue the project’s mission year round?
GAB and MT: We use Instagram in various forms, but mainly to provide information about our project or create dialog. This year we had an Instagram challenge (#WhereDidYouFindZs) asking people to talk about an artistic adversity they had to overcome. We were open to a range of responses; not having clay, studio access, or missing a date for a show. Anything. People answered and we hashtagged it, and created a library of stories of how people overcame difficult times. This is something students could access to help understand the road ahead is not easy, but worth every step.
We figured out early on that it is easier to convince high school students about the magnitude of the ceramics field when there are over 5000 people coming into their city for a conference. We use this opportunity also to paint a global picture of the art world and help students see themselves as part of it.
However, we sadly were unable to do workshops in Richmond, Virginia, because of COVID-19 and with alarming news information, we understand we will not be able to do in-person workshops this upcoming year in Cincinnati, Ohio, as well. Instead of skipping over Richmond, we thought we could use this opportunity by viewing the pandemic as an adversary to overcome and try to work around it using our digital platform. Staying committed to our promise and honoring the relationships we had already forged with teachers, our first challenge was not having NCECA as our world view for the ceramic arts, and the physical, real example of how this material connects to the greater world. But just as we have used social media to create virtual communities and dialog for students to learn from, the question of how we use these efforts to bring that experience to Richmond and Cincinnati in the safest and most fulfilling way possible is one that we are working to answer.
CM: How does The Clay Siblings’ Project raise funds for outreach projects, and how do you source materials?
GAB and MT: One of our greatest mottos gifted by past Sibling Madeline Boucher, “Clay Fam, Not Clay Fame,” is our guiding mantra in navigating outreach for the project. At its core, the project has never been about us, but the larger picture of constantly leaning on one another so we can all grow stronger together. It is not about one of us reaching a peak of fame, but championing the sum of us and what the greater group can accomplish.
With that in mind, we have built strong partnerships with different leaders, organizations, and institutions throughout the ceramics field to pool together resources to pull off the project’s events every year. In addition, we crowd fundraise through t-shirt sales that specifically go toward the current workshop costs. So when you buy a shirt, you are not flexing a large brand conglomerate, but a community of people coming together for a rich cause.
CM: Do you see any connections between the experiences you’ve had working with the younger Clay Siblings in high schools and developments in the work you make?
GAB and MT: Teaching has made us more observant and attentive artists. The responsibility to learn has grown greater with teaching. We know in these classrooms people learn best through a variety of methods. We come in with a bag of adjectives and different approaches to each step so that students have a better chance of finding a personal connection to the material. This practice of thinking about an idea or approaching a step differently also helps us have a deeper understanding of what we are doing in our own studios. There are times when someone asks us something and we answer without much thought, only later to realize how much that answer makes sense to us. As we exercise that muscle it becomes more second nature.
It is difficult to explain something to someone who has very little context, and then to show that thing in multiple different ways is an even greater challenge. But yet it is what consistently excites us about sharing and learning in front of younger minds. As makers and educators, the constant questioning creates answers that segue into more questions, creating a perpetual upward spiral. Kind of like throwing or pinching.
CM: What are your hopes for the future of The Clay Siblings’ Project?
GAB and MT: Travel the world, have fun with the kids we meet, and to dream the impossible.
We would like to thank all the past siblings who made this project a success: Saul Bezner, Madeline Boucher, Hunter Brown, Bethany Butler, Austin Coudriet, Regine Crawford, Kyla Culbertson, Codey Davis, Lukas Easton, Katelynn Herron, Alex Hintz, Christian Heuchert, Emma Huffman, Hannah Jenkins, Anjelica Kinney, Sam Loeffler, David Morrison, Nick Mudd, Derek Reynoso, and Katie Wolf. Learn more about the Project at www.claysiblingsproject.org.