Media & Techniques

The Magic of Clay, Part 1 (Ep. 124)

Ruthie and John Post are two amazing art teachers from Sedona, Arizona. Though they have incredible ideas about many areas of art teaching, today they are on the show to talk all things clay. Listen as Nic guides a discussion on student engagement, the types of clay that work best in the art room, and how you can best make due with the materials you have in your classroom. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Today I’m very excited to introduce you to John and Ruthie Post. These two are art educators who have so much to share, but we’re going to narrow it down to just clay. These two have so much information to tell us and share with us that I can’t wait to get started with their interview. Guys, this is Ruthie and John Post. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Oh, thank you so much, John and Ruthie, for being here today. Before we get too far into this, can you just give us a little bit of an idea of your background? You guys have lots to tell us about, so I want people to know kind of where you came from, what’s going on?

John: Ruthie and I are retired art teachers within the last two years. We retired in June of 2018. We met when we were in art school down at Wayne State University in Detroit and we currently reside in Sedona, Arizona. We moved here after we retired. Ruthie started her career as a graphic designer and I didn’t know what I wanted to do and when Ruthie was finished her graphic design degree she decided to go to Eastern Michigan University and enroll in their education program. And she looked like she was having a great time doing that so I followed her into that program a semester or two later. And then we both became art teachers. Ruthie worked in the same district for her entire career and because of layoffs I bounced around. So I have experience in four different districts and that K through 12 and Ruthie’s experiences are mostly at the elementary.

Ruthie: At many different schools I had to go to seven elementary schools my last year. So we are definitely enjoying retirement.

Nic: Oh, I’m sure.

Ruthie: Yes. But when John and I met we were both artists, that’s what we did and we did all different types of materials. But one of the materials that we seem to both love was clay.

Nic: Yes, and this is exactly why I wanted to invite you guys on tonight and just to talk about that wonderful medium that is absolutely engaging in the classroom. Clay.

Ruthie: Yes, it’s the perfect material because to kids, clay is very magical and they really enjoy it.

Nic: Yeah. To people. To people. I think it’s very engaging for all ages including adults wouldn’t you say?

Ruthie: Yeah. Just because of the sensory qualities of it.

John: It’s funny, I didn’t really enjoy my clay class when I took it in undergrad, I only took one. But the first teaching job that I got hired at, the previous art teacher ordered all the supplies before he left and there was 4,000 pounds of clay in the classroom when I got there. So I had to figure it out on the job training. And after the first project I did with the kids, they loved it that it became such a big thing for them that I worked for three or four years and then we decided to have a kid. And so when our son was born, I was a stay at home dad. And so that’s when I went back to school at night to learn how to throw on the wheel because I felt like if I was going to do this much clay, I should be able to throw on the wheel with the kids too. So I didn’t really get into clay until I saw how much kids love the clay.

Nic: I think that’s the story of a lot of art teachers. Like you might think that you’re going to teach this medium or do this project, but when you walk into your new classroom and you see what’s available, sometimes it leads you down a different path.

Ruthie: Yeah. Because now John’s a full-time potter here in Arizona. Tell them a little bit about your pottery business.

John: I work at a local arts center. I do volunteer on the weekends. I run their open studio courses here. But it’s funny, all my friends are calling Ruthie my manager because she’s hooked me up with all these galleries. And so it’s nice to be able to work full time on your art without having to go into the classroom. Before it was kind of limited to summers, but now we’re both full-time artists out here so that’s been a nice change for us.

Nic: Oh, and you guys are so skilled at what you do. Okay. Okay. We have digressed a little but let’s get back on the topic of just clay in general. Now I follow both of you guys and have admired your guys’ work through the art of education for a long time and I know that both of you have experience in clay, but we have firing clay and non-firing clay that you guys both have some experience and some knowledge… Well, lots of knowledge about. Can you kind of help me understand the difference between the two and kind of give me a little bit of background with where you’re most comfortable?

John: Well, the thing that I think about clay is that when you go to the clay manufacturer, there’s several different clay bodies from each one that you can choose to use in your classroom. And if you have a kiln you’re going to be using clay that fires in a kiln. And so they typically rate that as being in three different families so to speak. So there’ll be a low fire white clay body, which is what I see a lot of art teachers using. And they use that because it’s very bright when you put glazes on it and the pieces come out very bright and shiny. And then there’s the mid fire range, which is Cone 5 and 6 and that work is a little more durable. It’s a little harder. It’s not porous like the low fire white, so you can… That’s typically Cone 5-6 that people fire in an electric kiln.

And then there’s the high fire clays which go to Cone 9 and 10 typically. And so when I look online in the art teaching groups, I see that many teachers use the low fire clays. Now what I did when I was teaching is that I use terracotta clay because I found that with the low fire clays, the work was kind of porous when the kids got it back and a lot of times little kids drop things. So I found a terracotta clay body that I would fire to bisque at Cone 06 or 05 but then when we would do a glaze firing, I would fire it to Cone 1 and that made the terracotta very durable. So I don’t see a lot of people doing Cone 1. But it worked great for me in the classroom because I would dip the kids’ pots in a Majolica glaze and then they would use the low fire glazes over the top. So I kind of combined two worlds there. I’m getting the durability of terracotta with the bright colors of the low fire.

And Ruthie, she did the exact opposite. She worked with the low fire clay with the glazes over it and now she’s working with a lot of clays that are air-dry because she’s doing this thing called the Clay Box. So I’ll let her talk about that a little bit.

Nic: Yeah, I’d love to hear more about that Ruthie.

Ruthie: Well, I’m retired art teacher, but my heart is in teaching and I didn’t want to give that up. So I kind of have a different outlet for that and I teach through something called a subscription box. You might have heard of them. They’re pretty popular right now. So I make up a lesson and I put all the supplies together for that lesson with clay and I mail it out to my students. And then they get this kit once a month with all the directions and supplies needed. And then we communicate through our group on Facebook and email how they’re doing and they are really enjoying it. But when they do these projects in their home, they’re not going to have a kiln to fire them in. So I had to do some investigating on the air-dry clays.

And so I bought 11 different clay bodies that I experimented with. The main four clay bodies that art teachers have probably heard of maybe are ACTIVA clay, Crayola air-dry clay, AMACO and Laguna clays. Have you heard of any of those?

Nic: Yes, absolutely.

Ruthie: Now these companies do make what we call the earthenware clays, but they do make a line specifically air-dry clays. And I learned during my research that these are actually real low fire or real earthenware clays that they add in an additive that helps them air-dry. And what’s amazing is that when they do air-dry they’re super durable. I mean you wouldn’t think that clay bodies that aren’t fired to bisque ware in the kiln would be so strong. But they are. And I did these testing samples and I have them all on my website. You can provide a link for the listeners today and they can go in and see how the air-dry clays look like in their natural state.

Nic: Yes, we will.

Ruthie: Some of them outperform better than others of course. But there are definitely some good clay bodies out there that teachers can use if they don’t have access to a kiln.

Nic: Well, and I love that you have done the research for us. Like you’ve done the hard work of doing the research and just exploring and experimenting with these different clay bodies. So thank you for that.

Ruthie: Well actually it was a lot of fun and it came about because I am one of the product designers for ACTIVA Clay Company and you might’ve heard of them before. They sometimes contribute items to the Art Ed Now conferences in the Swag Box. And so I taught like 29 years and I never even heard of the company or their clay and I got a free sample in the Swag Box on one of the conferences I attended and I just couldn’t believe how great this clay was. And then through the Facebook chat groups, I made contact with the company. And so now every month I do projects for them using their clays and you can get my free art lessons for your students on their blog site. So feel free to check those lessons out because they’ll be good lessons for the children. They’ll enjoy them and have good success.

Nic: They’re adorable. You were at an AEA this last year in Boston and working one of the booths. Wasn’t that when I saw… Yeah, right?

Ruthie: Yeah. And if I’m going to be backing a product, I mean this is something new for me, you learn, you have a career and then you realize that you can do more than just be a teacher. And so now I’m teaching other teachers about these products and I want to really be able to speak that I understand the product and that I back the products. So it was interesting to test all the other clay bodies and I found that ACTIVA clay did outweigh all the other air-dry clays that were out there. It was just a more durable product and the end result was just finished nicely.

Nic: That’s actually been my experience as well.

John: I think that’s nice to know because a lot of parents want to give their kids those art supplies to use at home over the summer and because their kids love playing with clay. And as a potter, I never had any experience with the air-dry clays either. But now that Ruthie’s done the work with the ACTIVA clay, I can see how great it would be for parents to get their hands on that.

Nic: Absolutely.

Ruthie: I just wanted to just talk about something that we might kind of overlook. But I use playdough with my students and you can just make your own. I have a real simple recipe I can share with the listeners. And what’s nice about it is you can just make up a big bag, Ziploc bag, put it in your classroom, put it in a center like if they finish, early finishers can go to or pull it out with your development of kindergartners up to your first or second graders and just have them practice making coils, pinching the clay, making food items, anything they can imagine. And that hands-on sensory experience with the clay, it’s just great for fine motor skill development and for developing skills that they can use later when you’re trying to make more of a lesson or art project with other goals. This just gives them some early experience working with clay and it’s inexpensive.

Nic: Yeah. And it really does help out. And I’m going to add onto that. I just recently sent out a email to all of my first grade parents asking them to make the playdough for me. And so I have this playdough coming in, I give them the recipe, they create it and they send it in and we’re going to do some color mixing with some of the playdough. So I completely agree with you.

Ruthie: Yeah, that’s another good project to do. And sensory kits are so big right now with little ones. And even the older kids, they just love it. You know how that slime craze was going around, they love playdough. I think we’re just all kids at heart and we all enjoy a good lump of playdough. It just makes us feel good.

Nic: Truly, truly. And okay. So you mentioned the playdough, you mentioned the air-dry and the firing clay, but as an art teacher when you’re first coming into the art scene or art teaching scene, what kind of tools do you need to start gathering? And if there is specific tools like what order, because it’s not cheap to get those tools for clay.

Ruthie: Well, you don’t really need anything fancy. John and I both just either purchased inexpensive items that we could turn into tools or we made tools and then later when you do have extra fundraiser money or whatnot, you can add to those basics. So you can just go up to the grocery store and find some pointed tools. They have them for city chickens. You can get Popsicle sticks there as well. Plastic knives. Go down the other aisle you get toothbrushes. You could ask the kids to donate rolling pins. You could take a large sponge and cut it into smaller pieces and you can buy just some regular canvas that you might use for a painting. But you could just get it up at the fabric store and cut it into smaller like maybe 12 inch by 12 inch squares that the kids can use it as a messy mat.

Nic: I love it.

John: I didn’t want my kids to have any pin tools, but I wanted them to have something that was like a pin tool. I was worried that one little kid might poke another little kid. So I just took some paper clips and I used electrical tape to hold them onto some Popsicle sticks. So I just bent out a little arm of the paper clip, made it stick out from the Popsicle stick and then with the electrical tape, I’d put a little dab of the epoxy glue on there to hold the end of it. And so that was our pin tool. And so for 30 Popsicle sticks and 30 paperclips you’ve got yourself a little bucket of tools. And then the other tool we use was the little pokey stick as Ruth called it, or the chicken city stick. And then one of the kids’ favorite tools is a garlic press.

Ruthie: Oh yeah, I love that.

John: And so we used it for making hair for clay portraits and fur for animals.

Ruthie: That’s a basic extruder.

John: And then the other tool that I liked was something called the serrated rib. And I got it from It looks like a little pottery rib with a zigzag edge, but it’s great for scoring the edges of things that you want to put together. And that was our basic toolkit. So it was really simple and it wasn’t expensive at all. And I think that the most expensive part of clay is the firing, but most schools aren’t aware of that. So you can fire the kiln as much as you want.

Ruthie: Shh, don’t tell anyone.

Nic: Yeah, I know. Keep it under wraps people.

John: If they knew how much it costs every time you turn the kiln on, they’d probably be after you for the money. But that’s the expensive part of clay because like where we lived, a ton of clay was about somewhere between $600 and $700 delivered to our school. So that’s half of the projects that we’re going to do that are using clay. So that’s pretty economical. You can do that many projects for six or seven hundred dollars.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, truly. Okay. What are some of the tips and tricks for teaching clay to students? I know that you guys have so much experience. Just give us a couple of tips.

Ruthie: Well, so let’s say you do get that playdough in from your parents and you give it to the kids during class. One of the number one things they’re going to make is food. They’d love to make food, they love to eat it, cut it apart. So I just have them start with food. And then when I’m giving them a directed type of project, I compare the forms that we’re going to make to food. So if we’re making a person, I’ll say roll a sphere the size of a meatball and then make two little pea size spheres for the eyes. And they know right away because they have experienced eating food and making it.

And I also like to do the same technique repeated. So like my little kindergartners, it’s hard for them to roll a sphere. I mean that’s part of the lesson, how they’re going to do that. And once they make a sphere, they turn it into a mouse and then the next clay project we might do a ladybug. So we’re going to start with the same form again. And then I do that even with the older kids. We’re going to make maybe a bust of a horse, we’ll start with a cone. And then the next week we’re going to use the cone again in the project so that they have repeated experience. See we’re in the classroom day after day and so we’re using these art materials over and over, but the kids aren’t. That’s their one little lesson and then maybe they’re going to make clay again in a few more weeks or whatever, but they’re not going to do it over and over so they need repeated practice to develop those skills.

Nic: Yeah, good point.

John: Yeah I agree with Ruthie. One of the things that I did in my classroom was I would go back and forth between painting and clay projects. So let’s say that the first graders were making little clay snowmen. We would also, when those were done, then we’d do a painting project of snowmen outdoors. And so I would always be able to talk to them about the differences between shapes and forms because when we were making paintings, we’d be using shapes but when we’re working in clay, we’d be using forms. And my last few years as a teacher, I was teaching K through six and so with kindergarten to introduce them the clay, I would start by rolling out a slab and I purchased some cookie cutters on eBay and I had one that was a beautiful little snowman and so I would have the little kindergartners make all the parts for the snowman.

So they would have to make a set of buttons, making spheres. They’d have to make a couple spheres for eyes. They’d have to make a little cone for the nose, and then they’d roll a cylinder for the scarf. And so their job was to attach all of those things onto their snowmen. And the nice thing about starting with that basic form for kindergarten was that it gave them a recognizable object and they didn’t have to make a form. But if they did that for several lessons in kindergarten, by the time they got to first grade, they were ready to start making the forms and start connecting those together.

Ruthie: See, I think one of the mistakes that our teachers make is they don’t do enough of clay projects. They sometimes just do it once a year. And I don’t think that’s enough for the kids to really develop those types of skills and techniques that they need to make successful projects.

John: And the kids, when you make it fun for them with the clay like when I was teaching the clay, I used to have a little poem that I would have them repeat as we were working and it was, “a sphere is a ball, catch it or it fall. A cylinder is a tube, a doobie doobie dube. A cone is like a kiss. You pinch it like this”. And so they would repeat after me when I was saying that poem. And they’d be giggling, but they would get to know what all those forms would mean and how to make all those forms. And the great thing about kids is after you do a lesson with them, then they go in and they make babies for everything. So if you make a clay snowman with kids, they’re going to make a little baby snowman. You make a clay penguin, they’re going to make a little baby penguin.

Ruthie: But that’s where the real magic comes in because you’ve trained them to make this certain thing, but then they transform it into their own expression. And that’s where we want to get them anyway. We don’t want to keep them at the cookie cutter level. We just use that as an intro in.

John: Like a couple of my students, we were making these little tiny clay sphere pigs and they put Christmas hats on theirs. So we had these cute little Christmas pigs. And then the next thing you know, everyone in the classroom wants to put hats and wings on their pig. And my goal is I was teaching about the history of these little handmade pigs from South America and how these three legged pigs were a good luck charm. And I just wanted them to make pigs. But by the end of it, I ended up with pigs with Mexican hats, pigs with Christmas hats, pigs with wings, pigs with babies on their back.

Nic: Art. You ended up with art.

John: Yeah. And so what I like to do with the kids is watch what they’re making because they will often give you the idea for the next lesson. And sometimes the kid in the first class of the day will make something so cool that it then becomes part of the lesson for the kids in the next classes.

Nic: Yeah, you are absolutely right. Hey, you too, I want to thank you so much for being with us today. You gave us a hundred good ideas and I have a feeling that we’re going to hear more from you in the future because I think there’s still questions out there.

John: That’s fine. We’d love to come back. We didn’t even get to talk about some of the things we wanted to talk about. So sure, we’d love to come back.

Nic: I know. Perfect. Okay. Thanks a lot.

John: All right.

Ruthie: Bye.

Nic: What a treat to have such knowledge on this podcast today. I’m sure your brain is just percolating with lots of ideas and possibly questions. If you have more questions about clay that you would like to direct to myself or John and Ruthie who are actually the experts on this, please leave them in the comments down below with this podcast. Thanks for joining us today. I really appreciate your time and we will chat with you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.