Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar 5762 - April 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family
A Lump of Clay

by Devora Piha

When we think of clay, we think of commercial modeling clays, oil-based plastalina or homemade play dough for an enjoyable afternoon of play. But how many of us have wandered with our children into the wonderful world of earth clay? Clay from the earth is very friendly. Clay appeals to hands of all ages.

When children are well supervised in very small groups or one- to-one, the experience we all discover is that clay is responsive and seems to remember the hands that formed it. Best of all, it is relaxing and therapeutic. Tension seems to disappear into the clay as our hands work with it. The earth absorbs our stresses and our human power as it takes the directives of our hands while we make vessels for use.

Clay is lengendary. It is real and natural and straight from the earth. It is a byproduct of decomposed rock made through the action of water and weather. Added heat turns clay into pottery. Remnants of ancient vessels record fragments of history. Clay reminds us of the close relationship man has to the earth. From a lump of clay, the potter makes jugs for water and old wine, plates, cups and oil lamps.


Avi's hands make forms from clay: a cup, a bowl, the basket that held the infant Moshe, a bikurim first-fruits basket. He feels masterful as the clay responds to his touch. The clay holds its shape as Avi's fingers roll, pull and pinch ropes, coils and slabs into place. He doesn't always know what he is doing but that doesn't stop him. The clay goes along with him. It is yielding and accommodating. There is almost no fight. It is there for him to shape into pizza pies and vessels. He is the captain of the ship of clay.

Not all children like to touch and play with clay. Chani finds clay dirty and messy. We don't push her. When she is receptive, she is given a small piece in her hand and told to roll it like a ball. She is then shown how to roll the ball into a rope and then how to make five or six more ropes, all laid out in a neat row. She counts them over to see how many she has made in a moment of accomplishment. The clay is no longer frightening to her and she is beginning to enjoy her control over it. She attaches the ropes into coils, layering each one on top of the next until she completes her bowl. A deep breath of approval is released as she proudly hands the masterpiece to her mother.

Clay can be bought by the roll which resembles a log. It is brownish, reddish or gray and sometimes whitish. Keep it wrapped well in two plastic airtight bags to prevent the air from starting the drying process. Handling the clay will also remove its natural moisture. Likewise, it will dry out the hands. (Clay facial masks are used to dry out oily skin.) Slightly dried clay can be made moist by placing it into a double plastic bag in a covered plastic can, (a coffee tin etc.), pressing a thumbhole in the center and adding water.

Clay may take a little getting used to because its properties are not those of commercial modeling clays or homemade play dough. Earth clay may be cold and damp or turn dry and cracked; powdery and dusty when broken into little pieces; muddy with too much water. But when clay is approached with enthusiasm for its own merits, the rewards and inner satisfaction can be great.

With care, small objects can be made at home on the kitchen table. Clay works as well indoors as outdoors. Make clean-up easy by covering the table with several layers of paper or with plastic. Wash tools and work area before clay hardens, for easy clean-up. Wear aprons and have a can of water, a cutting board or large flat tray to work on or put the finished work of art on, to dry out of the way.

Choose tools according to age of child for safety and easy manipulation. Use clay tools or make your own. Use strings of dental floss to cut off slabs of clay. Use scissors to level the tops of bowl, snipping around the top. Stay away from cookie cutters but do use stamps from small pieces of wood, doweling etc. Use rolling pins or the sides of cups to make flat thick slabs. Keep slabs and all the clay work thick to prevent cracking and breaking.

Begin by cutting pieces off the clay roll with dental floss or pulling by hand. Work the clay as if you are kneading challah. Children enjoy pounding the clay on the worktable for a few minutes. Continue on to balls rolled in the palms of the hand and ropes rolled out between the palms or on the table. If the clay gets dry, add drops of water to your hands or on the surface, a little and not too much. Add pieces by slightly damping the two areas to be jointed, scoring with a fork or toothbrush, applying the two halves firmly and smoothing over the joints.

A professional potter fires or bakes his ceramics twice in a special oven called a kiln: once to harden it and once to melt the applied glaze, making it waterproof. A special trick to preserve the finished object, I discovered as a teenager, making a clay toy that I still have a few decades later, is to make the objects very thick, at least one inch, let them dry thoroughly and coat several times with white plastic glue, drying between coats. Acrylic (plastic) paint can be added to the topcoat, or applied alone. Broken pieces of pottery can be fixed with white plastic glue. Apply several coats of glue to the dried patched area.

Acrylic (plastic) paint can be added to the topcoat or applied alone for added variety and color. Mix soft tints from white and drops of color. Try mixing two parts white with one part yellow and one part red for a lovely orange- rose hue. Try to come up with your version of colors similar to the natural color of clay but in variations.

Let's see what we can do with a lump of clay.

Five easy and popular hand-built modeling techniques are:

1. The Pinch Pot Method

Make a CUP.

Roll a ball that fits in your palm. Press your thumb one third of the way in the center. With the ball in your right hand, use your index finger and thumb of your right hand to gently squeeze and press the clay, beginning from the bottom, in a counter-clockwise circle around several times until a thick cup is formed. Check the walls for evenness. If clay cracks, wet it with fingers. Level off the top with scissors or press the top upside down on the table, gently. Let dry. Coat with white plastic glue. Color with acrylic paint.

2. The Coil Method

Make a BOWL.

Roll out ropes between the palms of the hand or roll the coils on the table. Make six to ten strands about the length of half a pencil for young children or a full size pencil for older children or adults. The base of a bowl is made from a small `plate' from one coil. Press all the seams together. Attach a coil around the base. Continue adding coils until you have a bowl. Smooth the seams together from the inside and the outside.

Optional: Add a short thick coil on the bottom of the pot for a `foot' (base). Attach this in from the outer edge of the bowl. Look at bowls in your home for ideas. Attach thick handles, `ears,' that do not extend too much. Let dry. Cover with plastic glue. Paint or leave the natural color.

3. The Slab Method

Make a BOX.

Roll six balls. Place one ball at a time on a board. Use a rolling pin or side of a cup to roll balls into six flat one half inch slabs about 3 x 4 inches each or other size easy to work with.

Use a ruler for measuring and marking off straight lines. Work on a board because you will have to put the slabs aside while they become `leather dry' before assembling them.

For a rectangular box, make four long slabs (3 x 4 inches) for top, bottom and two sides of box and two short (3 x 3 inches) for two ends.

Or, for a square box, make all six of equal size.

Put board with slabs aside until they become `leather dry'. Leather dry is when the clay is firm enough to stand up without collapsing. It retains some moisture and is not so dry that it is impossible to work with.

Join the bottom with two long sides. Continue with the two short sides. Smooth the joints. Add clay inside the box at the corners for support if needed. Fit the top. Remove and let dry. Cover with white plastic glue and paint if desired.

4. The Subtracting Method


Roll out a thick slab, one inch thick and approximately 5 x 6 inches large.

Trace a piece of paper over the clay.

Draw a simple decoration on the paper.

Black in the areas to cut away and leave white areas to remain.

Transfer design onto clay with a pointed object.

Remove cut away areas with a dull knife or ceramics tool.

Cut out a hole at the top for hanging.

Let dry. Cover with white plastic glue. Paint if desired.

5. The Adding-On Method

Choose an OBJECT.

Add on balls and blend onto an existing form to build up and mold objects of your choice.

Devora Piha is available for art lessons, art therapy, in groups or individually, and for consultation. 02-9920501, Ramat Beit Shemesh.


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