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Visiting artist teaches craft of clay at Sagebrush

Learning doesn't stop with a diploma or a graduation ceremony.

Education is a lifelong process, and no one knows that better than teachers. Melinda Laz, an art teacher at Sagebrush Elementary School, is a case in point. Laz spends her days educating students about the power of creativity and personal expression, but she's also passionate about deepening her own knowledge of her chosen field.

That's one of the reasons that Laz turned to an artist and fellow educator for some guidance when it came to teaching Sagebrush students about working with 3-D art. Thanks to a grant from the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, Laz was able to commission professional artist Marie Gibbons to come to the school to guide a four-week workshop on clay and sculpture. The Educator Initiative Grant came as part of the core goal of the Foundation, which focuses primarily on impacting all CCSD students, investing in innovation and building long-term relationships in the community.

"My background is more in 2-dimensional art, and I wanted to bring in an expert," said Laz, who found Gibbons through the Denver-based nonprofit Think 360 Art. "We're working on creating whistles and rattles in the style of South American animals. They're learning how to make the forms, and they're being encouraged to create the features of a South American animal."

The project was far from simple. To create a working whistle, students had to create a precise form that allowed the proper amount of airflow to produce sound. Students who weren't able to figure out that form in the relatively short span of a month opted to build rattles instead, an instrument that necessitated its own specific format and elements.

According to Gibbons, a professional artist with a background in a wide variety of mediums, the difficulty of the project didn't dissuade any of the elementary school students.

"They've hit the ground running with it, and they've done a great job," Gibbons said. "I like being with the students, because they keep me on task. It's really important that art is in their lives. For them, it's about looking at things in different ways; it's about figuring things out and problem solving.

"I feel real strongly that it spills over in to life in general," she added.

The students' art teacher would be the first to agree with Gibbons. Laz was learning about the form along with her students, working hard to build a workable whistle out of clay. Some of the students made quicker progress, and Laz wasn't at all hesitant to encourage them with the title of "experts."

"I am learning just as much as my students. I'm learning clay form and the clay structure as they are learning it," Laz said. "I feel like I'm not as fearful about turning on the kiln as I was a few weeks ago … Having Marie here has opened my eyes."

Those lessons will carry over long after Gibbons completes her four-week residency. Laz has already discovered the power of the medium to engage students in new and compelling ways.

"A lot of (students) love engaging with this material – It's less intimidating somehow than drawing," Laz said. "It's very tactile, it's kinetic. They can really get in to it and get their hands dirty. It strikes a chord with students who like that style of art making."

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