Christmas morning 2003 my husband surprised with me this painting. He commissioned it for me in honor of our newly created Jeremiah Project. I was so touched I cried for the rest of the day. The painting represented his belief in an idea I had developed to create a ceramics program for under-served middle school-aged students. Our pottery studio was located on the second floor of a Congregational Church in Winter Park, Florida. We hoped art could serve as a bridge crossing the economic and racial divide of the east and west sides of Park Avenue in Winter Park.
The program’s name was inspired by a verse from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah…
“I went down to the potter’s house and there he was working at his wheel…
The vessel he was making was spoiled in the potter’s hand and he reworked
it into another vessel that seemed good to him…then the Lord said, just like
the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”
“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand” served as a metaphor for our program. Clay comes from the ground and grounds those who touch it. Clay requires centering on the potter’s wheel before it can be shaped. Clay is forgiving, it can be remolded if we make a mistake. Shaping a vessel simulates the power we have to shape our own lives. These were the messages we hoped, ever so subtly, to convey. It’s amazing how a ball of clay and a spinning wheel ground and center even the most anxious of pupils. Creative expression can be an oasis, offering a refuge for kids whose lives are often fraught with turmoil and hardship. Even though the studio was housed in a church, we didn’t preach our theology to the students we served, preferring instead to live our theology of empathy, compassion and social justice.
Covid-19 slammed shut our studio doors in 2020. The pandemic made our program inaccessible to our Future Potters of America pupils. The Jeremiah Project was not deemed an essential service. We did not provide meals or money. In the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to argue the comparable value of an arts program versus a survival program. People often view the arts as disposable, but often they are the answer.
While providing opportunities for creative expression was a key component of our programming, the Jeremiah Project aspired to something broader. Encouraging students to take risks within the confines of a safe environment, to think bigger, was our larger goal. It takes a measure of bravery even to show up at a strange church and work in a strange medium, creating something out of nothing. The kids arrived shy, relying on the comfort of their companions. Creativity can be an intimidating concept, but unfailingly, we would see comfort levels increase as a ball of clay morphed into a mug, plate or bowl. No matter how our staff stumbled over each other to help, holding up a newly formed clay creation is risky and subjects the artist to a certain amount of vulnerability.
A large canvas covered table in our studio served as a kind of communion table where startlingly honest conversations could be overheard. One exchange was particularly memorable.
One afternoon, in the early days of the pandemic crisis, one of our students was putting the finishing touches on a wheel-thrown dragon bowl he had created the previous week. Head bent, hands carefully attaching a clay head he had sculpted, Kai recounted the epithets hurled at him from a passing car as he waited for the school bus in his neighborhood. “Your fucking mother brought the virus here!” The hurt and naked vulnerability in his young eyes was heartbreaking. Silence greeted this disclosure as his fellow twelve- and thirteen-year-old classmates struggled with an appropriate response. A week later, as I was unloading the kiln, we discovered a plate created by Kai’s seatmate at the table.
“Asian Lives Matter.” I don’t know whether Kai was even aware of Shalaura’s artistic efforts as she carved her inscription into the clay; perhaps she gifted her plate to him. I hope he had the opportunity to see the end result of her quiet compassion. As an African American teen residing in an under-served community, I suspected Shalaura had wounds of her own she concealed. Kai spoke up that day, educating his classmates on what it is like to be an Asian-American in today’s political climate. At least one of them was listening. I was struck all over again about the potential healing power of art. Kai’s heart will probably always carry the scar of those racial slurs. His friend Shalaura, however, converted a message of hate into a message of hope through art.