Hand Built: Ceramics at Simon's Rock

The assignment: Create a three-dimensional self-portrait. “To scale?” a student asks. “Proportional,” Ben Krupka, ceramics faculty member, explains. Scale, it turns out, could be difficult because clay shrinks between 12 and 15 percent when it’s fired. Math ensues. A dozen students are quietly and not-so-quietly speculating about how to concretely determine the shrinkage, and therefore scale.

The classroom is modern, airy, and abundant in volume. All the work tables are handmade with plywood and metal—installations Ben crafted five years ago when he interrupted a residency at the acclaimed Archie Bray Foundation to begin work at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. “Most of what you see here, I made with Dan Romanow from the College’s Maintenance department,” Ben says. That includes the drawers, the shelves, and (if you’re counting) parts of the gas fired kilns, which were rebuilt (twice).

In fact, for the most part, ceramics at Simon’s Rock is now a handmade endeavor. Students are learning from scratch, building a ceramics foundation piece-by-piece. They will learn to make their own clay, to mix their own glazes, to fuel the recently constructed wood fired kiln—fired, of course, with lumber from campushand-built-pullquote trees. No part of this program comes from someone else’s mold, which is probably why it’s become so popular.

Tonight’s class, Intermediate Hand Building, has a mix of advanced ceramics students and some who have only taken Intro to Ceramics. Ben’s instruction speaks to both groups. He offers methods that might be helpful—referring back to pinch pots and wheel work—and also thinks out loud about concepts the more advanced students might want to plot. “Will anyone build from the shoulders up? Have you thought about whether you’ll include glasses? Something that’s going to be really difficult is hair—how will you deal with your hair?” Someone jokes that they might use yarn. Ben smiles, “It won’t harm the kiln, but it will burn off.”

Before the students set off on their week-long assignment, Ben demonstrates approaches to sculpting. He works from the inside-out, skillfully kneading the clay then building up. As he does this, he holds up tools that are helpful: A squeegee from the Dollar Store, a spray bottle. More like a skilled television chef than a lecturer, he’s mixing and molding while bringing the students along on how this is all happening.

“You’ll notice that every time I put clay on the front, I’m removing it from the back,” he says as the students carefully watch. “The idea is to work quickly to get the form roughly in place. You shouldn’t waste too much time fussing over it. ” In ten minutes, as he instructs and works, then works and instructs, his vision begins to emerge. It is no longer a block of clay but a recognizable shape, something that looks like a head, halved and opened. “I have to stop here and wait until the form is leather hard or the weight of the new clay will deform the piece.” He looks up to a now anxious-to-sculpt group, “Any questions?” There are none.

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