Mariposa Life

Debbie Croft: Combining art, education creates great rewards

For Erika Miranda’s fifth- and sixth-graders at Sierra Foothill Charter School, last week felt a little like Christmas.

After spending eight weeks learning about the Earth, art and clay, in conjunction with the usual subjects, students opened their surprises. Wrapped in aluminum foil were simple pieces of pottery the kids had shaped themselves. Their artwork was then “fired” in a sawdust kiln they also built.

The class had collected donations of combustible materials, bricks or cinder blocks and metal mesh for constructing the kiln. A volunteer firefighter supervised the firing process.

Sixth-grader Skylee Correia-Butler made at least eight objects.

“I’m an art freak. My room is filled with art,” she said.

Having worked with clay before, she knew how her pieces would turn out.

Adding organic materials to clay art before firing produced interesting effects. Seaweed produced a greenish tinge; salt turned some objects a brownish-pink. Each piece was uniquely beautiful, and the students were amazed.

What they didn’t realize, though, is how much scientific knowledge they absorbed while having fun.

The clay art project was part of an artist-in-residence pilot program recently introduced to Mariposa County schools. Ceramic artists Phyllis Becker and Tiffany Newberry were welcomed to the Sierra Foothill Charter School campus. Becker and Newberry worked directly with Miranda, who actually taught the material.

Miranda admitted her motivation was a bit selfish, as she’s always wanted to learn about clay art. But she and the two artists were thrilled with the results. Miranda posted the students’ progress at her blog:

Friday afternoon she said, “It was such a blast. The kids are so excited about their whistles and rattles.”

An eight-week session also took place during last year’s fall semester.

Mariposa County Arts Council sponsored the project. Funds were provided by Pacific Gas & Electric and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Participating artists did receive a small stipend for their time and effort.

According to Cara Goger, Arts Council executive director, “Technically and conceptually, the arts have always leaned heavily on math … and social sciences. We are happy to be introducing this program that contextualizes the arts for students, instead of presenting them in isolation. We know that the arts have the potential to deeply impact a student’s academic experience and performance. Kids who participate in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. For these reasons we are thrilled to be piloting this program.”

This unit was titled The Mud Beneath Your Feet.

Goger also stated that “students examined chemical reactions and the (mathematically measurable) dynamic effect they have on the molecular and atomic structure of matter through the creation of whimsical ceramic pieces.”

During the eight-week course students completed several art projects while learning scientific and mathematics concepts.

Part of the fun was applying the principles to shaping the clay and constructing the kiln. They brought soil samples to school from their yards, and watched the various components of the soil separate into layers. Clay from their own samples was then used in creating their objects.

Another project included learning about angles and perspectives while drawing cakes in the style of Wayne Thiebaud. The 94-year-old California artist is famous for his colorful paintings of everyday objects, including desserts.

Other local artists involved in the residency program were:

▪ Visual artist Jackie Baxton, who taught at Gold Rush Charter School in Greeley Hill and Lake Don Pedro Elementary School.

▪ Greg Ennis, jazz musician and mathematician, who assisted at Woodland Elementary.

▪ Anna Friedland, who used her skills in visual artistry at El Portal Elementary, Yosemite Park Elementary, and Mariposa Elementary School.

The Mariposa County Office of Education supported the program wholeheartedly.

“This type of inquiry-based learning blends academic subjects with art and other subjects, showing how all are really interconnected,” Goger said.

She plans to offer more programs in the near future.

During the last week the students made thank you cards for the art teachers. In one a student wrote, “I learned that I can actually be creative.”

For an artist, watching that creativity blossom is the greatest reward.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. Follow her on Twitter @ghostowngal or email her at