John Toki first introduced me to Kevin Nierman. Some twenty years ago, Nierman founded a program for teaching children how to work with clay as a creative medium. He called his program Kids n Clay. As usual with friends whose work John admires, he was enthusiastic about Kevin. And it was John who introduced me to Nancy Selvin, also, another friend and fellow clay artist he admires. Nothing impresses John more than the spirit of generosity and especially when it's combined with creativity. And so, when visiting Selvin not long ago, I discovered she'd interviewed Nierman, I thought that surely, it would be something worth sharing with our readers. And here it is… R. Whittaker
Nancy Selvin: You are considered one the most gifted children's art teacher in the Bay Area. Students stay in your program for years. It is very exciting to walk into Kids N Clay and observe. The kids are always asking questions, helping in the kiln room, working in the glaze room. What do you do that is so compelling?
Kevin Nierman: I work with clay as a medium. I think clay is an underrated art medium. It is unlike a piece of metal or a cardboard box, as one little boy put it, "you start with a blob, and you can turn it into absolutely anything." Clay inspires a creativeness with few boundaries. You can see it when the kids get lost in a piece. When they are working you can talk to them and they don't even hear you.
N: You started out as a potter. You weren't trained as a teacher; what prompted you to start teaching?
K: I was working with clay for maybe ten years when I went to a workshop at Idyllwild, in Southern California. A couple of women told me about an after-school program where they taught, in Los Angeles. I thought, wouldn't it be fun to give what I know to kids. But, I thought, I can't teach. No one will give me a job, I don't have a degree and I don't have any certificate. The women suggested "why not bring in the neighborhood kids" and that's what I did. I went home and opened my studio to the neighborhood. That's how it started, with the two kids next door.
N: There are amazing dragons, cat shaped teapots, giant puppets, and a sixty foot long table setting coming from your studio. You have young kids using the same techniques taught in art school and college studios. How do these projects happen?
K: I always tell them you can create anything you want! We'll find a way. If kids want to make a dragon that's four feet tall, and my kiln's only three feet tall, we'll find a way, and we do! They can make anything they want as long as they're doing it with clay. I encourage them to use foam, paper or wire to make their clay ideas possible. The kids come up with incredible ideas. I never say, "You have to glaze this," or "You have to underglaze that." I give them tools and processes. When kids come up with an idea, it's my job and my assistant's job to figure out a way for them to realize it.
N: How do children know what's available to them?
K: There are several ways. One is that they learn over time. Kids usually come and they stay, like you mentioned, for several years. They start out learning about underglazes and dip glazes, sawdust firing, raku, and painting. It's all earthenware. I encourage children to think up their own techniques and they become even more creative. Children begin to experiment and then they ask, "Oh, what about burnishing" or "let's re-glaze this" and "let's raku that". We walked to the railroad track the other day to get pieces of metal. There are marvelous pieces of track and big spikes. The students brought back all this metal and started attaching clay to it. They glazed not only the piece, they also glazed parts of the metal. When I took the work out of the kiln yesterday I thought, my God, these pieces are incredible. The only bad thing about teaching children is that I don't get to keep any of this fabulous art that comes out of the kiln. (laughs) Otherwise I'd have the best collection in the country of children's art.
N: I've seen other teachers at work. They take precautions so work won't crack. They're worried work will blow up in the kiln. You don't appear to have traditional rules about what is appropriate, what is too thick, or too fragile, or what can or cannot be put in the kiln.
K: Except for personal safety, I try not to have any rules. The more rules there are, the more constricted kids are going to feel, and the less creative they're going to be. I'm fortunate because I'm working with children. Children are more fluid than a lot of their older counterparts (both laugh). I don't want to limit their creativity with a lot of rules. There is an aliveness children express. They are free in their explorations. As soon as the kids come into my studio I feel this sense of excitement. I enjoy helping them find ways to express themselves creatively. I tell them, we are going to use earth and it is going to go through transformations. It is going to go through fire. It might be glazed. It's going to dry and shrink. And there are disasters in the studio: cracking and work accidentally smashed by some other kid. But kids are more willing to accept chance. I find a way for them to understand it is a process.
N: Your students created a sixty foot long table setting.
K: Thank you, Judy Chicago! Every year the kids show their work somewhere in the Bay Area. One Year we used the Addison Street windows in downtown Berkeley. It's a sixty foot long, narrow space, at eye level if you're around five foot tall. (both laugh). It's perfect for kids. We decided the only thing we could do in the one month we had to prepare for this, was to do a project where each child creates pieces of the show. Then we could put it all together as a whole. We agreed to use Judy Chicago's wonderful idea and at the same time learn how to use the potter's wheel to make plates and cups and bowls. I didn't show them Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, but we did drawings of what there might be at a dinner party if you were working with clay. Some kids made chandeliers, clay chandeliers. Somebody said, "All right, I'll throw plates." And somebody else said, "I'll make the teapots." one kid said, "I'll make a dog that will sit at the table." Another child decided to do the placemats. They all made ceramic food. The show was a community celebration of the children's work.
N: You mentioned kids throwing. You are renown for teaching very young children five and six years old to throw. That's very surprising.
K: It is actually the hardest part of the teaching. Wouldn't you know they love it. (laughing) Some kids spend a lot of time on it. I have a dozen wheels and children are welcome to throw any time they want. They're welcome to use the hand building area any time too, it's an open program. Fourteen years ago when I decided to teach, I thought, I'll teach youngsters from seven years and up how to work on the wheel, and I did. Then one day a five-year old girl came into the program. She was hand building and she said, "Why can't I use the wheel?" And I said, "Oh, because we don't start until age seven, it's easier when you're seven." She said, "I can do it." So, I said "You can?" And she said" sure." We went over to the wheel and I taught her how to wedge a tiny piece of clay, appropriate for her hand size and by the end of the afternoon she had thrown a small bowl.
Depending on the child, the wheel can be very exciting. Some children love to throw pottery. Other kids want to do all kinds of hand-building and sculpture. I feed them ideas of what can be done with the wheel and how to use it for sculptural techniques. It took time to figure out exactly how to teach kids. I had to learn to say, "The wheel is a tool. You need to respect it as a tool." They're allowed more free rein if they can treat it as a tool. When they reach into the splash pan they have to turn off the wheel so they don't hurt themselves. But once those rules are established they're allowed to do whatever they want to on the wheel. I've found that kids want to push their limits. They try to find new and interesting ways to work at the potter's wheel. I learned also not to be afraid to put your hands on their hands and let them feel what centering clay is like. Once you teach them kinesthetically they know what to do. I have a lot of success with kids being able to center clay. Little kids with little hands. Also, they use electric wheels. Kids who are ten years old are throwing pots that are twelve, thirteen, fourteen inches tall. We also do raku, sawdust and pit firings.
N: Do the kids tend to the raku kiln?
K: I've gone through various stages. Some of the older ones reach in with the tongs. But, because I now teach 200 kids a week, there are concerns about health and safety issues around raku. I'm careful and I or one of my assistants pull the work out of the raku kiln. I have teenagers, fifteen and sixteen-year olds, who sometimes pull. Some of them will throw in the combustible material. They make the piece, apply the glaze, and bring the combustible material to post-reduce from their yards at home.
N: I've noticed parents like to hang out. You have a very social as well as creative environment.
K: There are lots of visitors. I like talking to people. It's a real pleasure to sit and chat with parents about what's going on with their kid specifically. I like to be as available as I can toward the end of class to talk. Sometimes parents sit and work side by side with their child. Parents have a lot of questions. They often ask, "How is my kid doing?" which seems like an odd thing for a parent to ask me, or they will say things like "I'm so thrilled and excited by what [my daughter] is doing."
I don't know how to say this exactly, but I like parents to have a level of detachment from their child's experience. What I find is there's an intrusion, a natural interest, in what is going on [on the part of some parents] and sometimes they want to get involved in the child's art. I let them know that that we're here to work and to have fun. This is the way to learn. I've been able to establish a precedent with parents. They know now that we're not going to be making cups on Wednesday and plates on Friday. When a parent comes in, I tell them how the program works: children are here for an hour and fifteen minutes once a week, they will work on whatever it is each child wants to work on and I give them the technical skills to succeed. I also tell parents that I don't know how long it's going to take for their child to complete something. As a matter-of -fact I have had kids who don't bring anything home for a month. It means that the child destroyed most of what he made. And that is okay with me. I do have some limits here. If the child is destroying everything, then we sit down and talk about what's going on. But there are times when a child is struggling with a concept and they smash work or they don't finish it. I have had parents come and say, "Well,[Susie] hasn't brought any ceramics home for a while," and I tell them, this program is not about the product but it is about the process. My goal is to keep each child open to their creativity, to keep them using their hands. Helping students create is the most valuable thing I can do. The value comes from what is felt, thought, learned, experienced while they are in the studio.
N. So, smashing pots must be fairly rare?
K: It is rare, rare on a regular basis. But, every kid here goes through a time of saying, "Why did I do this?" or "I don't like this." That's the challenge of being an artist, and as a potter I know what it's like to go through the creative process. I know how emotional art can be. There are days when I don't like what I've done so I allow the kids to have that experience too. The creative spirit that exists in the studio is translated into a sense of excitement over what we can create.
N: I get the sense that you work with the kids as artists. It isn't a traditional education.They come into your studio and behave like artists.
K. As far as I'm concerned, they are artists. There's a lot of debate amongst themselves about this very issue.
N: Do the parents talk about how Kid's N Clay affects their children's work in school and outside the studio?
K: Yes, I hear wonderful remarks from parents about the effect of this program on their children. Like, "My son is doing much better this year in school," or "School was tough this year, and Kid's N Clay is what got him through." Parents mention self-esteem, motor skill improvement and confidence building. I get kids with learning and physical disabilities. I'm developing a reputation for being able to include them successfully in the program. I was talking to a parent whose child not only comes during the school year but also came to a summer camp. The parent said her son has a hand-mind coordination disability. She said he used to just sit and not do anything. It's remarkable how much Kids N Clay has helped him. How excited he is to use his hands... he's so turned on to the clay. What is interesting is when he first came here we spent a lot of time with him because he would work hard but his projects would collapse. Or, his hands would push things down rather than pulling them up. It was a real challenge, but he's now an amazing artist.
N: What happens when the kids take the work home?
K: Actually it's a real dilemma in the East Bay. (laughs) There's a rumor going around that parents need a gallery for all the children's work. Part of the joy of working with clay is the permanent record. Parents have marvelous sculptures from the time the kids are young until they're off to college.
N: You are the subject of a chapter in author Sue Bender's best selling book, Everyday Sacred. Sue found inspiration in the way you teach and in your own pots.
K: The pot Sue Bender first encountered was a cracked pot. A pot which I threw on the wheel, bisque fired and then smashed. I raku the shards, then re-assemble the pot. What Sue was interested in was my way of working and why I work that way. I described to her how once I started to let myself destroy, to crack the pot, and then reassemble it, it served me well as a working artist. There is liberation in making something and then breakingit. It's hard to explain. It allowed the destructive part of me, Sue calls it my inner saboteur (the part of me that sabotages myself in life and in work), to find a voice. Destroying the work was symbolically the worst thing that I could do. Then I put it back together; creating the whole again. My pots are truly a reflection of self. My life hasn't been a wonderful, straight path to happiness and joy and prosperity. (laughs). I didn't get out of high school, go to college and become an artist. I had a lot of struggles, inner struggles. I worked hard to find ways to deal with and live constructively with the pain that I experienced. The cracked pots become a metaphor for my own life process.
N: You've worked very hard at integrating your teaching, your pottery and your life. You were able to buy your home and studio space because the Kid's N Clay program provides you with enough income.
K: For which I am very grateful (laughs). This is a business. But it's also a way of life. I can't keep the studio, my house, or my life going without income. I charge a monthly tuition. Which is due on the first of the month. If a child is not here on a specific day, they can make it up. There are classes each weekday from 3:30 until 6:16pm. There are also three different classes on Saturday from 9 until 2:30. And, in response to a very long wait list, I added a couple of evening classes for teenagers. I work with three teaching assistants in classes of sixteen students. If the group were any larger the structured chaos (that's so valuable to me in the studio) would get out of control. The student/ teacher ratio provides plenty of personal freedom in the studio. When a student is working they might want to let out a yell. Or, they might want to get up and stand back ten feet to look at their work. Sometimes they need to dance around a bit. These are all things I do in my studio. want kids to be able to do it too. They hoot, they holler, they clap and sometimes they cry. You need space for them and I've found sixteen is the perfect number. Luckily it works financially too.
N: In teaching, as with your own work, you mentioned that your focus is really on the process, not on the product. I know you see your life as a process.
K: I work a lot. Work is part of life. I believe that children are incredibly perceptive. I think children know how honest you've been with yourself over a lifetime. They can see it. When I say I'm enthusiastic it's not bubbly, I'm not a cheerleader. It's something different. I have a real joy for living. I consider being a successful teacher an absolute gift. The children know that. It all comes through in the studio. I had a new little boy in a class last week, He's eight years old, at the end of the class, he said, "This was the best day of my entire life." (both laugh)
This interview first appeared in The Studio Potter 2002 Vol. 30 Number 2
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