Throwing Clay for the Humanities
by Sara Curnow Wilson
“You can totally eat out of this.”
Daniel Ricardo Teran is speaking to a student in Associate Professor of History Seth Bruggeman’s "Studies in American Material Culture" class, only they are not in the classroom. Bruggeman and his graduate students have traveled to The Clay Studio in Old City, Philadelphia, where Teran is resident artist, to learn how to throw clay pots.
The class begins with a pottery wheel demonstration from Teran, after which Bruggeman and his students sit down at their own wheels to get their hands dirty. The room instantly breaks out into chatter and laughter—“this is hard!”—but Teran is encouraging and before long, the center table starts to fill with pieces.
Working with community partners like The Clay Studio is one way to overcome the stubborn notion that humanities training is somehow limited to books and classrooms.
Bruggeman, who tries to include a visit to a Philadelphia studio or shop every semester he teaches this class, says the value of working intimately with objects is that it provides a new way of understanding history.
“Historians typically don’t know much about stuff,” he explains. “We’re good at sitting in the archives and sifting through old books and papers, but we’re usually not trained to use things—artifacts, images, buildings, landscapes, and so on—in our research. One goal of my material culture seminar is to familiarize our graduate students with basic methods for finding clues about the past in the things that surround us.”
As the students get more comfortable with the wheels, Teran talks about different types of clay, the glazing process, and some of his own work. Students learn how to clean their wheels and pick their favorite pot to glaze.
“Working with community partners like The Clay Studio is one way to overcome the stubborn notion that humanities training is somehow limited to books and classrooms,” Bruggeman says.
The response from the class is overwhelmingly positive. For second-year public history MA student Joana Arruda, who is interested in curating and caring for museum objects, the field trip was a reminder that objects have a long history before they reach the museum shelf.
“It's really easy to take the museum's authority for granted, but working with clay was an exercise in redirecting that power to my own individual authority and agency when creating something,” Arruda says.
The students see their pots again, now fired, a few weeks later in Temple’s Digital Scholarship Center, where they learn about digitizing objects and get the chance to digitize their own pots.
“The point is to consider how our relationship to things changes over time and as they take on different forms,” says Bruggeman. “In essence, my students will have had the chance to make two objects that are, at once, the same and different.”
Only one of those objects, of course, will hold food.