Playing in the clay: Gundlach turns second grade class into pottery haven

Tom Sherlin

From Melanie Tucker, The Daily Times –

With aprons on and sleeves up, second graders at Mary Blount Elementary got busy Thursday turning a ball of clay into cute critters.

It was all thanks to professional potter Annamaria Gundlach, who has come to the Blount County school for 16 years as a roster artist. Art teacher Heather Woods has applied for and received a grant through the Tennessee Arts Commission for the entire 13 years she’s been art teacher here.

Gundlach was coming even before that, Woods said.

Gundlach gathered the students around the art table, showed them a 25-pound bag of clay and then challenged their creativity to transform it.

“It’s magic,” the artist told them. “This is magic because this becomes this.” Gundlach had shaped her ball of clay into a hedgehog pencil holder. Each of these students then got their own clay to begin molding into a similar shape.

They were given tools, like a comb, to make indentions that resemble hair. Gundlach showed the eager students how to pinch clay into eyes, ears, and noses. Whiskers were also part of the instruction.

Around Gundlach’s neck was a medallion she made in this class at Mary Blount a couple of years. “How many of you still have yours?” she asked. A room full of hands went up.

The potter worked with all grades at Mary Blount, kindergarten through fifth. Each grade has its own project. For some of these second graders, this is their third year of delving into clay with Gundlach.

“By the time they get to fifth grade, I have worked with them on multiple projects,” Gundlach explained. “It is something new every time.”

Gundlach moved to Blount County 21 years ago and immediately plugged into the arts community. She is a guest artist for TAC and an outreach artist for the Knoxville Museum of Art. She also teaches a sculpture class once a year at the Knoxville Fine Arts and Crafts Center.

She isn’t working with any other schools in Blount County this year through TAC; she has traveled to Knox and Anderson counties.

Despite the number of years, Gundlach doesn’t seem to be slowing down. She feeds off the energy and excitement of these students.

“The kids are just focused and they get right to it,” she said. “They pay attention and follow directions.”

Woods and Gundlach both know art has more applications than art colored on a piece of paper or a clay animal.

They said what these students are learning can be applied to many professions, from the making of robots to gaming technology.

“That’s because clay is so versatile,” Woods said. “I feel like it’s my job to expose them to as many different mediums as possible so they are aware of what’s out there.”

Woods said by the time Gundlach was through with the week, she instructed 630 students. Woods said she would never have been able to do such a project on her own. The grant provides all of the materials and Gundlach’s expertise.

A potter herself, Woods has her own kiln at home and teaches pottery in the summer. She’s experienced the magic of clay since college. “I fell in love with it,” she said. “It gets in your blood.”

Once the critters these students made are laid out to dry for a couple of weeks, Gundlach will come back after Woods has fired them in the kiln. The next step is for the young artists to paint them.

Sitting at tables were classmates like Sadie Mills, Austin Russell, Jayley Cope and Hanna Noble, who were busy shaping their animals and sharing techniques.

Noble had even decided to name her hedgehog JoJo.

Each said this week is one of their favorites in art class. They couldn’t wait to paint them and take them home.

And while the process is certainly a lot of fun, Gundlach said studies have shown that people who take up art or other forms of creativity have a greater lifespan.

“Those people who go to museums and develop hobbies later in life have longer lives because they are engaged,” she said. “It’s left brain/right brain. To be interesting, you have to be interested.”

This age is great to teach, Gundlach said, because they aren’t intimidated or afraid of failing. Kids use their enthusiasm to rise above any roadblocks.

She hopes many of them will continue in art into middle school and beyond.

One of her students gave her a huge compliment this past week, making Gundlach chuckle.

“He told me, ‘You need to be the Bob Ross of clay on TV,” she said the male student told her.

Ross taught people how to paint for years on his PBS television show.

These days, businesses are also looking for college students who have done more than graduate from business school, Gundlach said.

“They want to know if you have a liberal arts background,” she said.

“Can you read Shakespeare? Do you know any poetry? It’s about connecting the dots but not always in a linear way.”

This article was originally published in the Blount County Daily Times on 02/02/2020