Enter, with me, the art room at West Homer Elementary School, where Halibut Cove artist Annette Bellamy is slicing up slabs of clay in preparation for a class in “exercises in imagination.”
And here come the kids–twenty-one third-graders, streaming into the room. They fall against and into the hard plastic chairs and reach for the irresistible hunks of clay. If I had any doubt that working clay is physical, like gymnastics, I am now convinced; the room fills with pounding and punching as clay is thrown against the work tables, beaten with fists and elbows, pummeled and pinched, rolled into balls, flattened to pancakes, beaten again.
There is an actual assignment, which is to build fantastical creatures, although Annette has told me her real goal is to have the students “push the clay around,” to find out what the material can do, see how an idea in the head might manifest into a physical, dimensional form. For a long time the scene appears to be utter chaos, all about smashing the clay and shouting. Bits of sticks and a variety of scoring, cutting, and smoothing tools are wielded like weapons. And then . . .
In the final minutes, as Annette circles through the room, offering praise and advice and help with particular problems of attaching legs and embellishing with textures, a bevy of strange beasts begins to take shape. There’s a sleek two-headed monster, a scaly dragon, and a slippery coiled snake, a boxing glove shaped to a tight fist. From cold hard clay, from chaos, from the crash of physical force and rapidly firing young minds: creation.
Annette, pausing with one girl who seems committed to forming her clay into an absolutely round ball, gently helps her think about how irregular–and interesting–heads can be, how there is no “right” shape, how much fun it can be to see what the clay– and the hands shaping the clay–might do. Her touch is deft, skilled, encouraging, but she is more than an expert in how to transform clay. She is showing these young people what it is to be an artist: someone who experiments, innovates, struggles, is surprised, and works hard at something he or she loves and wants to perfect.
There is joy all around, and it is deafening.
I’m remembering, as I have not in a long time, being the child who, herself, sunk her thumbs into modeling clay, spattered paint, glued Popsicle sticks and tissue paper, drew with pencil, pastel, ink. If I didn’t develop those particular skills much beyond the grade-school level, I surely prospered in the doing, surely took forward into my life a way of approaching the world and its possibilities. Above the classroom fray, I think now of Nabokov, who turned human frailty into story and story into art, whose flawed and fictional but soul-saved Humbert Humbert penned this penultimate line: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.” I gather in the sounds and the sight of young people learning, and I am thinking of lizards with wings, malleable clay, art in all its forms and for all its purposes. In this place, this time, these lives we live, we absolutely need such beauties, this refuge.