Shaping lives; Clay artist shares decades of expertise, discovery

Ethan Lail holds the penquin he made in class. Photo by Joy Kimbrough.

If you ask Annamaria Gundlach, she will tell you clay and children go together like peanut butter and jelly. She ought to know. She’s been teaching both children and adults for about a quarter century. This past week, Gundlach was at Mary Blount Elementary School and got the opportunity to bring her passion and expertise in the art world to 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She even designed her project this year to coincide with the One Book Blitz and the reading of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”

A group of third-graders was all ears on Thursday morning as Gundlach showed them what they would be creating — a miniature clay penguin. She got them prepared to use their most valuable and important tools — their hands.

“Can you buy these at Hobby Lobby?” she asked as she held up her hands. The students were all in agreement they could not.

Gundlach first started with the penguin’s eyes and moved on to its beak, wings and feet. With just a few other tools besides their hands, these young artists turned a lump of clay into something they likely will keep for years — or at least their parents will. The class is part language arts, part science and all-around fun for these elementary school students.

Gundlach is a professional clay artist and lives in Blount County. Her creations have been displayed and sold worldwide. Mary Blount was able to bring her into its art classrooms thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission. She is a roster artist with TAC. Over the years, Gundlach has visited other elementary schools in this community, too.

Using available tools

Art teacher Heather Woods has applied for and received the TAC grant for the past 12 years. Before her, Doris Poppelreiter did the same. She is now retired.

“With these third-graders, this is (Gundlach’s) fourth year with them,” Woods said. “They will have six completed projects when they leave here after fifth grade.”

Mary Blount is fortunate to have a kiln where these penguins will be fired and then painted before being taken home. Gundlach asked this group on Thursday how many of them have kept their clay projects from years past. Just about everyone raised their hands.

“They look forward to this every year,” Woods said. “The process of applying for the grant isn’t difficult. It is definitely worth it.”

At one point during her instruction, Gundlach asked the children to close their eyes. She had them push their fingers inside the clay to make the bottom of the clay figure that then would serve as the animal’s feet.

“Close your eyes and feel this medium,” she said. “It is a tactile medium. It is not like holding a pencil.”

The young artists were attentive and creative. When they didn’t get something created to their liking, they just pinched the clay together and started over. Gundlach’s first success in teaching art came many years ago when she got her first job inside the Broward County Jail in Florida. She was tasked with teaching 10th grade equivalency. Gundlach said she was having trouble getting through to her students.

“I gave them poetry and art,” she said. “They were learning literacy through self expression.”

From then on, arts integration has been Gundlach’s mission. She said with every school visit, she has a lesson plan. Students might be making clay salamanders, but they also will be writing about them. She’s even incorporated the American Revolution and Civil War into her art lessons.

“It’s my job to let them make connections through the arts,” this artist said.

Gundlach said she loves coming to Mary Blount because it goes the extra mile to provide these experiences. She also encourages other schools to look into the TAC grants. Schools may apply for up to $3,600 per fiscal year. Woods said her grant paid for everything, including the clay for 600-plus students. In addition to being a participant in this TAC program, Gundlach is an outreach artist with the Knoxville Museum of Art and an instructor at the Knoxville Fine Arts and Crafts Center. The older students at Mary Blount are making clay fish prints after studying an ancient form of Japanese art. Woods said Gundlach is always mindful of ways to extend lessons plans into the world of art. Hopefully, the fun and learning stick with them, she said.

“Someday maybe some of these young artists will become adult artists,” Woods said.

This article was originally published in the Blount County Daily Times.