Caitlin Wismer and Wyland Elementary School: A Clay Gathering
When art educator Caitlin Wismer started her first year as a long-term substitute teacher at Wyland Elementary School in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh this past September, the year ahead looked challenging and uncertain. Wyland is part of the Hampton School District, which made the decision to start the new academic year with a hybrid model, in light of the ubiquitous COVID-19 pandemic. Students would be instructed through a mix of in-person and virtual learning.
As an art teacher, Wismer faced the difficulty of teaching a hands-on discipline in a hands-off environment. “I knew the kids were missing seeing their friends on a regular basis and I wanted to come up with a project that would bring the school together as one big family,” she explains. Drawing on the idea of being separated, she conceived a plan to create a clay tile quilt, with individual pieces made by every student and eventually displayed as a unified piece. The project got underway in September.
Because the project involved 300 students in all grades – ages five to eleven – Wismer customized the work to the abilities of each level. “I wanted the children to focus on a specific artistic element, such as line, color, or texture.” Her kindergarteners were assigned texture; first graders studied line. “I asked them to choose a bat or a spider and draw the lines of travel that the creature might take,” she says. Older children in the higher grades utilized elements that allowed for more creative expression, such as color, space, and form. She says that most students chose things they like as subject matter, such as animals, foods, toys, and video game characters. “There was not one mask on any tile,” she quips.
When at school, the students worked in a reconfigured art room, arranged with social distancing in mind. “We couldn’t work at tables, as usual,” she relates, “so we had widely spaced desks. I used the slab roller to pre-form the 4’X4” tiles, cutting them with a pizza roller – which worked really well!” Each child wrote his or her name on the back, using a pencil as an etching tool. The older groups used various techniques – stamping, scoring, and building up with added clay. Wisner says, “Not one tile came out of the kiln damaged, not even those with added pieces.”
In lieu of glazing, Wismer used a wax resist technique, taking advantage of the children’s basic tool – the crayon. “I felt using the same color technique,” she says, “would bring a unity to the project.” To maintain social distance, she set up the dyes at the classroom sink and had the students come one-by-one with their pieces to be dipped by her. Wismer told them to “watch the magic happen” as the colors filled the un-waxed parts of the tiles.
In spite of the limited in-person instruction, the project was progressing nicely through the fall. Wismer took time to teach her students about the conceptual aspects of a collaborative piece of art. “We talked about quilts,” she says, “about what they are and how they are often made by groups of people. We talked about how small things, when they come together, become something big.” The students were enthusiastic and curious about how the pieces would be joined into one big “quilt.”
By the new year, full-time in-person instruction resumed at the school. The students were happy to be back in the art room and were ready to see their quilt come together. Wismer made arrangements with a local shopping mall to display the work. “I thought about how the tiles should be arranged,” she recalls, “and originally thought they ought to be mixed – in other words, not arranged by class.” When the tiles were delivered to the site, the personnel there went right to work putting it together. “They did an excellent job,” Wismer says. She used the circumstances to discuss the ever-changing aspect of an installation piece with her students.
The Wyland Elementary students have visited their work and are very proud, according to Wismer. “So many of them were amazed at the size of the finished piece,” she says. I am surprised at what a positive experience the whole thing was.” The finished quilt will remain on view at The Block on McKnight Road through February 18. Although it could have new exhibitions in other venues, Wismer says her students are eager to take their little pieces home, to look at and remember how the whole school came together the year that they had to be apart.
Visit The Block at Northway Mall, through February 18, to view the Wyland Elementary School Clay Quilt.