Community Clay: Planning, Organizing, and Constructing a Ceramic Public Art Piece with Students

Students were divided into groups, some taking on mass production tasks, rough cutting multiple forms like the hands, faces, eyes and hearts shown above.

Since it’s back to school time, I thought I would try to give the teachers out there some ideas for ceramics projects for the coming year.

Today, artist Jan Brown Checco, who specializes in the design, planning and fabrication of community-based artwork, shares her insights into carrying out such projects with students. In particular, she highlights her experience working with 8 to 13-year-olds to create a community-based ceramic tile mosaic during a residency at a school in Cincinnati, Ohio. Even if you don’t use this post to plan a project of the same magnitude, there are great ideas to take away for smaller projects. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



Student sketches inspired the development of major features, like the windows and doors of the Dreambuilding cathedral.

Clay is a most adaptable and forgiving medium for community-based art. People of all ages can participate, learning while they playfully handle materials and tools. With a clear plan for how to produce and use thousands of unique small pieces, something surprisingly luxurious can be achieved. Clear planning was essential for Summit County Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio, during a seven-month residency creating art for the foyer of an ornate Gothic chapel. The order was a tall one: design and fabricate two 9 X 36-inch mosaic, donor panels to honor over 600 generous benefactors. Hundreds of engraved metallic nameplates would cover the finished surfaces, suggesting something of a Byzantine style. Divided into groups of five to twenty, more than 200 students attended my in-school ten-week workshop. The workshop was held in the timeframe of four art class periods each day, and assistants and apprentices worked during after-school hours. For many of the 8-13-year-old participants, this was their introduction to clay.

Designing for Participants

Careful planning and practical conceptual design means everything for such a project. We followed a Renaissance workshop model in which many participants fulfilled tasks appropriate to their skill levels. This created a sense of group responsibility and ownership, while maintaining a solid work ethic and high aesthetic standard. Small groups carried out complicated tasks and returned to the workshop more frequently than larger classes could.

Work Flow

To ensure harmonious production with so many participants, it’s essential to orchestrate the flow of people, which includes estimating skill levels and assigning realistic tasks. Everyone helped in some way, while the lead artist and assistants prepared materials and provided finishing touches during hours of low occupancy. When the workshop was full, progress hinged on providing brief and clear instructions about the tools to be used and the tasks to be fulfilled that day. Returning participants moved through stations of the workshop methodically, knowing where materials were waiting for them and always cleaning up at the end of their session. Exit surveys showed students truly appreciated the rational, organized layout of the workshop.

25-Minute Student Tasks

Students could make one 2-inch tile per session. Since they knew the center of each square tile would be covered with a metal donor nameplate, they created interesting edge designs with common objects such as screws, hairpins, keys and decorative buttons. Many students carved and engraved the clay in interesting ways. Student imagination was a precious resource, reflected in inventive silhouettes and high-relief work.

Conceptual design for the two panels “Dreambuilding” (left) and “Spirit of Generosity” (right) grew from an abundance of visual resources. The challenge was how to adapt high-art forms to simple shapes feasible for students. The gothic forms of The Summit’s chapel, photos from Notre Dame in Paris, and illuminations by twelfth-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen all influenced major features, patterns and details. Five different Cone 6 high-fire clays provided a natural color palette that matched the school’s architecture. Some colored slips were applied, and after bisquing, many tiles received multiple coats of commercial Cone 6 glazes, bringing to some tiles the appearance of semiprecious stones. Occasional retouching with acrylic paint brought all elements to harmony.
Breakdown of Tasks


Lead Artist
Phase 1: Concept and Proposal
• Negotiate contract
• Plan overall workshop
• Research design
• Develop conceptual design of artwork
• Compile final design documents
• Create full-sized patterns
• Create workshop schedulePhase 2: Preparation
• Create models and samples
• Present history of mosaics slide lecture
• Present lecture about project’s design
• Select and direct assistants, apprentices
and carpenter
• Assign all tasks
• Setup workshopPhase 3: Implementation
• Train participants
• Create daily assignments
• Reconfigure workshop as
project proceeds
• Create most complex forms
• Layout elements for attachment
• Direct installation of art
• Coordinate name plates
• Prepare project reports
Smaller Groups
• Assemble multiple complex forms (requires
multiple visits to the workshop)
• Create small detailed elements (requires more
advanced skills)
Student Apprentices
• Daily quality control of all student-
generated work
• Apply slip and glaze
• Fabricate special tiles for bordersWorkshop Assistants
• Roll out clay slabs
• Refine materials prepared before and after
student work
• Transfer patterns to plywood forms
• Carve selected detailed elements
• Create multiple architectural elements
• Load and unload kiln
• Adhere tiles to forms

For more information on Jan Brown Checco, visit



  • Dick P.

    I have stopped getting the daily e-mails and would like to receive them again. I really think you have a great site. I have been working with clay for 50+ years as a teacher and artist. Thanks D.Pullen

  • Roland V.

    I am registered but…
    Why don’t I recive daily your post?

  • Gorgeous and inspiring.Renee, I’d love to see your project too.

  • The organisation and the outcome of your project is hugely inspirational. The detail is outstanding. Can I find the rennaisance workshop model online?

    I am an amateur potter running a group for disadvantaged youth. Anymore ideas on creating murals with young people with short attention spans would be welcome.

    Simon – London UK

  • Michele M.

    Hey Jan, great undertaking. But the photos don’t show us in what way the students took part in the creative process. For me, the term “Reniassance Model” suggests an out-moded way of working that’s best left in the past. It conjures up the big-name Master artist who designs everything, and his crew of un-named assistants who churn out the work. I like a model that invites young artists to not only use their hands, but their imaginations as well. It takes faith and great organization skills on the part of the lead artist to integrate community in all aspects of mural making, but the results are that much more rewarding. Hats off to you and keep up the good work!

  • Love it! I have recently done a large mural with students having a range of disabilities from austism to severe cerebral palsy. We used clay that we made from dry clay plus paper added (to reduce weight). The mural is 11 feet plus x 8feet plus. The students made ALL of the components with minimal to no help and under very primitive circumstances. We made ‘marks’ and textures using tools they were familiar with, such as pencils, fingers, and shoes (!). To make it look consistent, I made the background tiles and did the glazing. Students ranged in age from 19 months to over 50 yrs old. Various pottery/clay organizations were instrumental in getting a piece of this magnatude fired, as we have no kilns or clay facilities! (Remember: I said ‘primitive’ conditions!!:-) I think this would be of interest to CAD readers. I surely found the entire project inspiring myself:-)

  • Subscriber T.

    Thanks for all of your feedback, I am the artist in residence that worked at Summit Country Day School for this special donor recognition project. I’ll post some detail photos on my Facebook page for those who are interested and make it an album available to everyone. If you’d like to ask specific questions, the best way to reach me is my email, since my website is about to go into redesign. I will communicate as best I can in hopes that there will be other community-based ceramic projects that grow out of this experience. I loved working at Summit, and the results show it! – Jan Brown Checco

  • Subscriber T.

    Yes, I would also love to see the pictures in higher resolution. The mosaics are amazing.

  • Christine P.

    I’m always impressed at how skilled kids can be when given the chance. 8-13 yr olds are great to work with! They don’t know that they can’t, so they just do… and the results are often surprising.
    Great job, all!

  • yes I love it too but I am not sure how much of a hand the students had in this…acrylic paint will work on bisque when thinned with water and used as stain.great in pinch when you don’t have time to fire…can be beautiful.

  • well done what a lot of time went into these pieces but it makes me cringe
    when i hear the word acrylic paint.

  • This is SO beautiful! I see that negotiating your contract was right up there on the list, and I hope you were well compensated. Amazing and inspiring work!

  • Sharon D.

    This is awsome. I would like to see the pictures a little closer up though.

  • Emilie P.

    Wow… this is awesome. What a great project. I would like to do something like this with students. Do you have a picture of what the project looks like in place with the metal donor plates? The name plates are not showing up in the picture so the 25 minute student sessions was hard to imagine…maybe the square tiles of “Dreambuiding” were the donor ties. Did you seal the wood under the dropped joints between the tiles with the silicone too? I guess this work was on the inside of the doors protected from whether. So awesome — every detail looks perfect and the overall aesthetic is out-of-this-word.

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