Friday, February 26, 2010

Pit firing in the banana grove...

We made it to the village to finish firing! I learned so much in a very short amount of time. Shanna and I were fortunate to be observers of Mama Anna in her element. Below are just a few captured moments of the process.
 It's a little dificult to see in this image, but the pots are being placed into a shallow pit lined with coffee branches. 

Mama Anna receives the leaves that she then piles high atop the nested pots

The smoke was thick and, at moments, completely blocked the view of the nearby banana trees. It curled up and out of the leaf mound like physics-defying cream. We watched as it thinned, and the burned branches began to collapse into the pit, revealing our finished pots. I was surprised to find that only an hour and a half of burning had taken place when Mama Anna began to fish each piece out to cool.  

Here are the pots cooling on the ground. I wonder if you can notice that the cylindrical piece at the bottom left is more of a reddish brown? This piece was brought out of the heat just before I took the picture. As each piece cools, more of the brick orange color is revealed.
I was a little surprised that this firing took a mere 2 hours in total. I'm so used to thinking of firings as taking most of a day, and then some to cool. When Mama Anna pulled these pots out of the coasl and brought them straight to the cool ground and air, admittedly I was a little nervous, but it turns out that it's not really a problem. She explained to us that a lot of the time she fires pots in the morning and pulls them out to sell at the market in the afternoon.
I'm looking forward to returning these pieces to their makers. Before we left the classroom on the day of the firing, the students sounded very doubtful about the chances of their pots coming back whole. Sweet relief!
Special thanks goes out to Shanna who did a lot of translating and transporting to make this firing a success.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Recently at Umoja

Below is a photo update of the paper installation above Fatma's desk in the front room. Soon I will take it down and we will begin again with a new piece. 

In the Saturday class we have been exploring proportion and scale. We began with careful looking in the banana grove, considering our perception of scale and how it changes as we move our bodies through space. It was really satisfying to see each student's understanding evolve over the course of an hour. 

These two students are working with wire to measure and construct small scale versions of themselves. Tomorrow we will build a village for these figures. Beyond discussion of technical objectives, I aim to touch on what it is that each of us needs and wants in a home, and how these ideals are manifested in our lives personally and as members of a village or community.  

Check out those smocks!
This is the Thursday class. Some of the students pictured are actually from northeastern Ohio! It was surreal to sit in the front room of Umoja and look down to see a pair of OSU Buckeye branded sandals on a new student.
Yesterday, this group finished clay projects that will be fired in a village 20 minutes away on Tuesday.

(finished student work drying)

Shanna (another art teacher) and I found ourselves lost on a clay hunt a couple of weeks ago. We were driving to an area called Usa, and had almost lost hope of finding our destination when along the side of the road, a woman stood with a splay of fired pots. It seemed like a good sign, and we stopped to ask her where we could find clay like hers. She told us we would have to drive 40 more minutes to get clay if we wanted it, because the area we were in had "run out" of its clay reserves. Shanna then asked her about a mama who used to operate a women's pottery group, and the woman directed us just a little further down the road to the left. We took off driving again, and found the turn-off she had mentioned. Quickly we transitioned from highway, to driving on a mud road surrounded by corn and school kids in gray uniforms. We drove for another five minutes, and came across a group of women carrying wood. Again, we asked for directions. According to the women,we were on the right track, we just needed to go a little further...
We eventually found ourselves at a school with a large kiln in the backyard. That seemed like a sure-fire sign, so we pulled off and asked around. We finally found our way to Mama Anna, who filled us in on the status of the women's pottery operation. Apparently there was a dispute, and the whole thing had disbanded. She hadn't had any reason to make clay or fire anything for some time, but she offered her own small clay reserve as well as her assistance in firing finished pieces from Umoja. Wow.
After a little more discussion, she took us to her house further up the mountain. The road was again narrow, crowded with more corn, banana trees and the occasional person. We arrived, and were taken to the side of the goat stable, beneath which Mama Anna keeps her bags of clay. She grabbed one, pulled out a clump of prepared clay, and was quickly on her way to demonstrating how she makes a cooking pot. It turns out a lot of people make their pots on the ground, but from a standing position. As she demonstrated, Mama Anna was bent at the waist, arms elongated, and walking slowly around the clay ring adding coils. Meanwhile, the whole family had gathered and formed something of an assembly. In the end, everyone was looking at each other smiling and nodding.
To get the clay, Mama Anna has to hike a long ways, dig it out of the ground and carry it on her hike back. Beyond that, she has to sift it, add a fine sand and then water before it is a proper wet mix. Knowing the person who has gone to such lengths for a material we are using in class causes me to be more conservative, making sure we recycle each scrap, and to encourage students to put their best efforts in their work. We have used two batches of Mama Anna's mix for this project, and I am really looking forward to returning to Usa to work with her Tuesday!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

To the Crater!

Last Sunday, I found myself on an impromptu safari. It was amazing to see herds of gisele, zebra, and clusters of ostrich, giraffes, flamingos, and flies! On our way across the grass, some of the animals ran alongside and ahead of our vehicle.
Our destination was Oltukai.To get there, nine of us squeezed into a seven person vehicle, drove across some grassy turf, avoided patches of tire trapping mud, and found our way to an open wooden lodge that overlooks lake Manyara.
From the platform of the lodge we could make out bands of rippling pink created by an enormous flock of flamingos on the lake in the distance. Two friends, a Maasai tribesman and I made our way to the edge of the lake. As we drew closer, we could smell salt and the defecation of the beautiful birds.The ground was cracked, and where the water lapped at the land, there lived a bright green algae!
When we returned from the walk, we happened upon a humorous scene. The Maasai men had descended upon a giant open box of donated summer hats and shoes. Some of the clothing items were pretty flashy and effeminate. In about five minutes, I found myself an observer of a kind of dress up/play time. Evidence of this event can be seen above...
Five of the Maasai men hopped in the car to join us on our return trip to the main road. In order to fit the extra passengers, we raised the roof about 3 feet and everyone stood. I was squeezed between two people, and a car seat. As we drove over bumpy terrain, my hand was repeatedly pinched between the chair and a Maasai man's machete.
By early evening, we returned to the bustling and chaotic city of Arusha. The smell of diesel and garbage filled my nose once again. Some part of me was glad to be back, though I immediately missed the wild and wide open sights of our excursion at Oltukai...What a treat!