In the art room with Ms Alice, we had the class I was subbing doing clay. The art room is a new thing, a whole room dedicated to getting messy, all the regular school day stuff cleared away to make room for only creative, open, living mess. Finally a room I understand.
Dubious, though, because twenty five 6 year olds with lumps of wet clay… It would be dubious with one 6 year old with a lump of clay. The amount of squish, and disaster and tragedy if it goes wrong and mess.
But Miss Alice is in charge, and she’s from Kentucky, all that blue grass, and she is artistic and yet strong, if she says we can do it, so I can merge into her and we can play these kids like our band, lopsided maybe, but clay can always be lumped back together and started over.
So we’re flattening clay into a little rectangle, there’s a paper with a large rectangle drawn on and they get to try and flatten their piece to the shape of the rectangle. There’s a clean paper for everyone. There’s water you can dip your fingers into to soften your clay. There’s a little wooden tool at each place for cutting, soft, light wooden knife like the kind Indians would carve carefully.
Most of the kids flatten their clay and try and reach the edges of the rectangle. Two of the kids just keep putting on water until they have a soggy lump and they just keep squeezing it and squeezing it. Keith does this. Of course he does this, he is the smallest kid in the class, he is smart but his youth is busy, the wiring zapping his body around to do things and say things and be all things at once. He is the most annoying, and perhaps the most still growing directly from the ground, zinging upwards. Annoying because he requires the most tending, fencing, reining in. Fork in the light socket, because what would happen if?
We get the rectangles flattened, and then we press an insect mold into it, push hard, make fossil type impressions. They will become butterfly feeders, to hang on the fence, to collect dew for butterflies to land on and drink. It doesn’t matter what they are, or if they are perfect, or what is perfect with lumps of clunky clay hanging on a fence. What matters is, is the making fun, does it feel good, are you seeing yourself in the result, are you part of something bigger, creation.
I’m cleaning off little clay covered hands, and looking over at Keith who has to have his redone because he made the biggest mess. The majority of kids are getting their pieces to hang on the fence, lining up, chattering, like normal kids do. I hear Ms Alice saying Keith, I know you used the most water and added it to your clay and we made a little bit of a mess, but what that means to me is maybe you are an artist. Artists like to feel things. The free thinking Ms Alice, she can name things and see things others can’t. My heart breaks a little, because Ms Alice says the one thing that has flowered, and burdened my life forever. The feeling of things.
I don’t have to look at Keith to know he is up to his elbows in white clay, and that his clay is still a ball of complete goo in his hands and that he is squishing it. He is six and he won’t remember this day or this mess or the details of this room. He doesn’t have to worry about the 24 other kids or the fence waiting for us to put the clay on, or dinner to make, or working on his marriage. He is feeling the clay, because that feels good, and that is it.
The most annoying kid because he’s the one fully invested. I take them out to the fence, try to funnel them to the next step and they are all fairly responsible, some squabbles. But we are all these firings of thought and feeling and daylight and planes flying overhead and butterflies lofting past at random moments. Groups of children are impossible, unless they are singing.
I go to bed that night thinking about what Ms Alice said, in the middle of her work day. We aren’t getting paid that much, and there is so much chaos, and the neatness of the art room became the mess of the art room, but her thought was pure, and our art came out the way art comes out, okay, smashed, lumpy, funny, twisted. Occasionally we get the pure moment, in the midst of the chaos, of the most difficult person, with his arms wet with white mud, and his clay slobby and nowhere near successful or finished, and yet that’s what we’re doing it for, not the result. The experience.
Fork in the toaster. What would happen if. Maybe we don’t need death, exactly. But curiosity. Curiosity is science, and art, and thought, and living.