Creekside High School students blossom in ceramics classes

Ceramics classes enable students to learn a new art form, enhance their creativity and build community.|

(This is the second in a series of stories about the ways in which local schools are benefiting from the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation’s Classroom Grants program.)

Rafa, a Creekside High School student, didn’t think he was creative enough to be an artist, but his confidence changed dramatically when he met ceramics teacher Lexi Bakkar.

“Lexi’s philosophy is that everyone is an artist,” said Walt Williams, the art, math and science teacher at the local public school. “She taught him about Robert Lugo and other ceramists who inspired him because of their nontraditional style. Rafa not only made some awesome pots: He is now my top art student.”

Rafa is one of many Creekside students who have benefited from arts classes and projects boosted by the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and other local organizations during the past two academic years. This fall, Williams taught two arts classes, with 27 students in one class and 22 in the other. Creekside, a continuation school, has several grading periods per semester, allowing teachers to plan in three- or four-week blocks.

During the 2022-23 school year, the education foundation is providing a $1,000 Classroom Grant — the maximum amount it awards under the program — to help cover expenses for a six-class ceramics series.

As a result of the grant, this fall, Sonoma Community Center and Creekside collaborated to offer students the “Narrative Pots Project,” a three-week, clay-based class inspired by ceramics artist Maria Paz in which they told their own personal stories using surface design techniques. Students were taught how to create large ceramic vessels using coil building, a traditional technique.

Bakkar, the the center’s director of youth programs, taught the class.

“I encouraged them to build as big as possible, which was really important, since normally they have to stay confined within a smaller size,” she said. “This allowed them to break through in so many ways. It saw them gain confidence as they let go of the idea that art has to be perfect.”

The students then painted their pieces and were encouraged to use symbols and words to tell their stories.

“They had only two full days to work with the wet clay, which is not a ton of time,” Bakkar said. “Some of them really went for it, and I think they impressed themselves!”

The foundation and the community center funded an art program in the 2021-22 school year that included several projects. A series of ceramics classes were taught by center staff members, who guided students as they made bowls and other forms, culminating in a raku kiln firing of the pieces.

“Following the clay project, SCC brought in teaching artists from the SoCo Monarch Project to guide students in creating a collaborative mural (‘Be the Change’) on the Creekside campus,” said Gail Chadwin, director of development for the SVEF, in an email’. “Students really appreciated the creative freedom that each activity encouraged, and overall, the project also helped build community.”

Williams added, “We also took a walking field trip to the community center on Sept. 2 to learn what it offers. My goal was to empower and connect the students with art they will see every day (such as the mural) and teach them about a new medium, clay, that is challenging to teach without an on-site kiln.”

These activities had such a powerful impact on students that Williams applied for and received the Classroom Grant for 2022-23. The Sonoma Plein Air Foundation provided an additional $1,000 for the classes.

Williams described part of what he hopes to achieve with the grant.

“I am a massive fan of the Creative Bridges program (which strives to improve visual and performing arts education for all K-12 children through collaboration) and my goal for this year was to work with some of the other arts organizations,” he said in an email.

So far this school year, in addition to participating in the “Narrative Pots Project,” Williams’ students have studied the work of artist Raymond Saunders, toured Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, put up a giant peace sign in the colors of Ukraine at the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art and worked extensively with the community center.

This spring, students will participate in a program offered by Life on Earth Art, a Petaluma nonprofit organization that unites people from diverse communities to cocreate handmade, large-scale interactive art as a platform for social action and healing.

“The goal is always to inspire students,” Williams said.

Also, the grant will enable Williams and a center staff member to co-teach the “Ceramic Raku Collaboration” course during a three-week block during the spring semester.

“I really believe that art can be a way for students to learn how to problem solve, collaborate and think outside of the box,” Bakkar said. “Exposure to clay and firing techniques like raku is getting a hands-on math and science lesson. Raku helps you see, in real time, how the clay and glaze react to the heat of the kiln. Students are also invited to play with the reaction by adding combustibles like horsehair, straw and paper shreds.”

Chadwin says that the raku ceramics course is a perfect example of the type of program that the Classroom Grants project wants to boost.

“The purpose of the program is to provide teachers and their students with resources and experiences they would not otherwise be able to access,” she said. “The raku ceramics project is a perfect example of a high-impact, hands-on activity that will benefit students, but would only happen with our support, due to the cost of the specialized materials and teaching artists.

“The grant gives Creekside students critical opportunities to exercise creativity, learn a new art form and build community.”

These are some of the opportunities that Creekside ceramics students cherish most.

“I’ve learned how to be more creative,” said senior Rafael Moya. “I used to just sit there and wait for an idea to come to my mind of what to draw or what to make. Now I just come up with something. I’m much more creative, I would say.

“I enjoy working with my hands, because you get to manipulate material and shape it however you want. It’s pretty nice, because it’s completely up to you how your piece comes out.”

Senior Jessica Barrera says she has learned building techniques, including how to prevent pieces from breaking when they are fired.

“Walt is a really great teacher,” she said. “I feel that the environment we have here is great. We’re close — it’s a close-knit group. I originally went to a charter school, so it was very similar to this. I like the closeness. Here, we all feel more connected.”

Sophomore Grace Rodgers finds the classes relaxing.

“It’s kind of calming, because you’re focusing on just one thing. It relaxes the mind and it’s good to have new experiences,” she said.

Williams has observed that these opportunities are very meaningful to his students.

“Self-expression, cooperation and building community are vital to my students — and all students — as they often feel isolated, marginalized and left out of programs,” he said. “Having collaborative programs teaches them that most people are supportive, especially in a community like Sonoma. Plus, they learn about and connect with the community, which is a big goal of our program. Our students are done at 12:30 p.m. daily, so they can work.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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