“Fire and Fiber
Break the Ice”
An Artist-in-the-Schools Residency and Collaboration
Amy O’Neill Houck
works with 2nd & 3rd hour Ceramics, beginning Spring Semester 2015
How can art stimulate conversation and support a community?
How can student communication influence creative work?
These were the questions Amy O’Neill Houck and Heather Ridgway set out to consider when they developed their unique residency. Ms. Houck is a fiber artist. She was invited into Ms. Ridgway’s beginning ceramics classes to combine her work with wool and ceramic beads. The contrast between their mediums offered immediate opportunities for energetic discussions about creativity and collaboration.
As the spring semester began, Ms. Ridgway and Ms. Houck asked JDHS’s Dave Blanc, Nancy Seamount, and the students of JDHS Sources of Strength to lead an exercise designed to acquaint the students with one another. We began to establish correlations between the properties of fiber and social dynamics by weaving a “web” of peer and adult interconnections. Students tossed a ball of yarn back and forth across the room, as they introduced themselves. The result was complex, and strong enough to support a variety of large, sometimes heavy, objects. It became evident: connections with a lot of varied people in our community can support more than the best intentions of a few.
Ms. Houck and Ms. Ridgway wove felting instruction with ceramics instruction. Ms. Houck made beads along with the rest of the class as Ms. Ridgway lead the students though different ways to build form and apply texture with clay. The classes explored bead-making independently, and each student made a set of identical beads to share later.
During the days the beads were in the kiln for the first time, students began to explore the properties of wool. A quick poll told us that none of the students had ever made felt before, and few had worked with wool in any form. They learned that a single wool fiber has very little tensile strength, but felted wool fabric is quite strong because the fibers are permanently locked together. Students worked in teams of four to create a rectangular shawl design incorporating colors into images and patterns. They learned about cultural patterns in textiles, like plaid-weaves of Britain and the Ovoids and U-forms of Pacific Northwest Coast felt-appliqué designs. Students worked to create fabric solid enough to support their beads by layering fiber in various directions.
Once the beads were cooled from their first firing, classes learned about cone-firing temperatures, and glazes, and how to choose the right glaze to compliment the design of their beads. Classes created an amazing variety of shapes, textures and glazes in their finished bead sets. The glazed beads went back to the kiln for a second firing, which gave students time to turn their wool designs into felt.
Students learned that nothing can be unfelted--like a sweater that shrunk in the wash--there is no way to undo a piece of felted fabric, but the bigger danger is not felting enough. It takes soap, water, and agitation to turn wool into felt. The loose fibers of their designs were sandwiched by tulle and bubble-wrap. Students saturated the fibers and rubbed the wool in all directions as a team. Ms. Houck explained that felt-making has long been a collaborative process because the physical exertion needed to make yards and yards of fabric. Students noticed the earthy smells of wet wool, and were surprised to find their projects becoming a solid, real pieces of fabric.
As the wool felt dried for a day, and the beads cooled, Ms. Houck lead the class in composing Artist Statements. She talked about beads as symbols, and briefly touched on semiotics, the study of sign systems. Students considered how they can infuse their beads with meaning that might not be obvious to an observer of their work, and they prepared to write about the symbolism of one of their beads. They also reflected in writing on the processes of making beads, and making felt, on working individually, and working as a team. They considered how unity and harmony and intentional interest and contrast in the different media and influences, related to the concepts taught by Sources of Strength on the first day of the residency.
When the beads came out of the kiln the second time, students traded beads to expand the range of beads in their final collaborative felting project. Ms. Houck and Ms. Ridgway started a conversation about the historical context of both felt-making and beads. Students discussed the history and influence of trade beads on cultures throughout the world. They considered how people create common identities through textile design. Humans have been decorating themselves for over 82,000 years. The oldest human ornaments were recently found in Morocco: a set of shell beads no where near the water. This serves as proof of trade, cultural exchange, and a human sense of aesthetics, even in prehistoric times. As the students collaborated to assemble their pieces and attach beads of differing sizes and weights to their felt, they looked for opportunities to emphasize a design element or an idea in their compositions--perhaps an emphasis found in juxtaposition: arranging unlike things together to create an intentional effect.
Artist In The Schools Program is made possible through partnerships between the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Rasmuson Foundation, Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, and the Juneau Douglas High School Art Program.