Personal Clay Box
An Art Lesson by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.
Emeritus Professor of Art, Ceramics and Art Education
Goshen College
Goshen, Indiana 46526

Objectives   media practice   Creating Ideas   Construction
Drying      Finishing     Style  Decoration   Design Principles
Creativity     Why Make Requirements    Art History and Other's Art

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Lesson Objectives

  • Students learn to generate, sort, and develop ideas for content in their artwork. 
  • Students learn to assemble and finish a lidded box-like form from slabs of clay half way between soft and leatherhard. 
  • Build a frame of reference for the work of art by accomplished artists who have made similar work.
Age   This lesson is appropriate from grade 4 to adult.  

Media skill preparation and practice

The teacher does not show any examples or pictures of clay boxes before this assignment. To do so defeats the learning objectives of the assignment. However, students who have been dependent on seeing an example may feel lost.  One way to help them do better is to provide a chance to become familiar with the materials and processes that they will be using. 

If the students are not familiar with clay slab forming and joining, the teacher gives them a structured practice session where every student has some hands on practice.  In no event should a teacher simply do a demonstration while the students are asked to carefully pay attention and watch to see the demo. 

A Chinese proverb says: "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember.
Have me do it and I understand."

In this "preliminary experiment and practice" the students are not told the outcome.  They follow the experimental process and learn the outcome by experience.

Materials needed by each student: 

  • a sharp pencil or toothpick
  • a popsicle stick or similar tool
  • any simple knife or a needle tool that will cut clay
  • a piece of heavy cloth or unpainted canvass to work on
  • a soaking wet paper towel
  • some clay slip with a brush (this can be shared at a table)
  • a piece of clay slightly larger than an egg 

1. Every student flattens the clay the thickness of the pinkie finger. 

There are many ways to flatten clay, but the objective is to flatten it so that the thickness is more or less uniform.  If it gets too thin, just have them make a ball and do it again.  If it sticks to the cloth, pull the cloth off by pulling the cloth sideways from the clay. 

An enjoyable method is to have students use a foot to tap it flat between layers of canvas.  Larger pieces will not be uniform unless they practice a bit.  Sometimes we remove our shoes and gently dance the clay flat inside a folded canvas - being sensitive about not getting some too thin and not leaving some too thick.  We poke it with a needle tool or toothpick to analyze thickness.  Pulling the canvas off intermittently allows for the clay to flatten easier.

2. Every student cuts it into four parts by making an X shaped cut.

Method I -- Every student takes two of the pieces and sets them together to make a butt joint so the clay forms an L shape from two slabs. 

Using a popsicle stick or similar tool they gently smooth the seams until the seam is invisible.

Method II -- Every student takes the two remaining pieces and sets them together AFTER they the adjoining clay parts have been scratched (scored) with the point of pencil or a toothpick tool.  Scratches are 1/8 inch or closer. 

1. Some slip is added to the scratched adjoining surfaces.  Slip is make from the same clay, but has enough water to be like think cream.

2. The scored and slipped clay is joined with a slight pressure while attempting to slide the adjoining parts back and forth until they grip each other.

3. The inside corner of the L shape has a small coil of clay added and it is pressed down into the joint with many very small and very gentle actions of the popsicle stick.  The round end of the stick drags back and forth to smooth the inside corner.

4.  No water is allowed during any of the joining, but for a final finish a three inch square of wet paper toweling can be used like a thin sponge to smooth things.

5. Every student, using a popsicle stick or similar tool gently smoothes the exterior seam until the seam is invisible. 

Testing the Methods -- Every student is required to pull apart both clay joints in order to learn which one is stronger.

Discuss the results.  This part of the lesson is more scientific than artistic, but life is full of art based on science and science based on art.              top of page

Creating Idea Lists

As was mentioned above, the teacher does not show any examples or pictures of clay boxes before this assignment.  This is not an assignment in "learning by imitation."  This is an assignment in learning how to creatively generate one's own ideas for artwork.

The instructor encourages the class to generate the questions they would ask a stranger in order to get to know that person. Students write answers to these questions.  The answers are about themselves. The instructor does not ask any of the questions unless or until they no longer can come up with any and they have missed some important categories. They generally ask about favorite music, instruments, sports, equipment, recreation, hobbies, leisure time activity, family history, family vocations, magazines they like, and so on. If the box is to be a gift, they make the list about the user.  See this link for an expanded explanation of this process.

After the list of answers is fairly long, they make small sketches or symbols next to each word. Think of sketches as visual lists. Artists make visual lists to develop and elaborate good ideas and to eliminate weak ideas.

It is also helpful to have students make a list of items that could be stored in a clay box. This can be done by having them get in groups of three or four and brainstorm lists. After the groups have written their lists ask them to share the ideas with the class. The group with the most unique items (things not included in any other groups list) wins the contest.

Even with all this practice in idea generation, teachers may still need to prohibit some ideas because they are too common.  It may be wise to ask every student to list their box theme idea.  Once an idea is taken, no other student may use the same idea.  Or, at least if they do, they must not be working at the same table on in the same group.                  top of page


The shape of each box is unique and based on the student's interests

The bottom slab is first cut in a shape symbolizing one thing from the student's list. Tell students that the best boxes are those that are special shapes that no other students make. If more than one student wants to make the same shape, have them meet and negotiate ways to make each one different. For example, if there are two or three hearts, they need to list more love symbols. There are many other gifts of love. If there are two or more that still insist on making hearts, they can be placed far from each other and they can be required to add decoration without seeing the other person's work.

Students assemble slabs using scoring and slip. They fill in corners to make the interiors easy to clean and sturdy. Wads of paper are inserted to keep tops from sagging. The tops are sealed on. See "finishing" below. 

WARNING.  It is really tempting to show the class some fine examples before they work.  When not showing examples, be prepared to ask students to listen, to think, to practice, to imagine, and to dream.  Yes, it can take more time. For me the time is less important than whether or not they are being artists. I do not need more products per semester as much as I need more learning per product. Sometimes I see a glow in their faces as they work - especially when I acknowledge an important personal innovation they have designed into their work. "The best boxes come from the students who think outside the box."


  1. Keep your box project wrapped in plastic unless you are constantly checking on it.
  2. Even after it is cut open and finished do not set it on the shelf to dry out in the open, but dry it SLOWLY while you check on it periodically.  

For a more complete coverage of box drying problems see: Hint #6:  Preventing Cracked Slab Boxes


  1. Cut the box open by cutting around the sides in a tapered notched or wave pattern.  Cut it with a very thin knife point. 
  2. Make waves deep enough. The lid should not slide off in any direction.
  3. Use a wood paddle to gently refine the exterior.
  4. Use metal rib to remove lumps and the exterior lines the joints show.
  5. Use small amounts of clay to fill divots and dimples in the surface.The inside needs to be refined. 
  6. The top will need a small coil added to fill the joint on the inside. 
  7. Use thick slip to prepare the joint for the coil to be smoothed into the joint.
  8. Similarly, fill vertical corners with coils if they need it.                  top of page
Having listed all these finishing criteria, it must be added that it is also very valid to make raw edges and raw clay joints if the artist's style requires it. In speaking about mass media, Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message."  As clay artist, I think the medium and the process is the message.  If the artist wavers between "slick tech" and "abstract action-expression," the effect may be weak, ambiguous, and confusing.  However, if the artist is brash, convincing, and consistent, it can be very strong work. 

In music we don't expect a folk singer to start performing hard rock and don't expect a rock singer to mix in smooth melodic ballads.  Just as in music, visual style portrays the artist's conviction, consistent mood, and aesthetic stance reflecting a particular artist's preferences. Students are not expected to have a mature style, but they are expected to practice creating consistent style, albeit temporary or experimental for them. 

Something supportive of the main idea must be incorporated in the decoration. Requiring decoration is a good way to encourage more creative problem solving experience. There are many ways to decorate, including:

  1. Paint with slip. Glaze with more than one glaze.
  2. Add some clay to build up pattern, picture, or texture (relief sculptured surface).
  3. Remove some of the colored slip (sgraffito) to create pattern, picture, or texture.
  4. Incise lines in the surface to create a drawing,
  5. Find items to stamp into the surface.
  6. On a new piece, pre texture the clay.
  7. Add pieces on the bottom to raise it off the table a bit.
  8. Add handles.
  9. Using a stamp designed by the student with an idea based on the student's self descriptive list 
  10. Words relating to the user, the contents, or meaning intended. 
Design Principles to be Considered While Planning and Working 
  1. Unity (avoid parts or visual aspects that are overly distracting or out of place).
  2. Variety and Harmony (make it interesting to look by using "visually related parts"). 

  3. Some ways to do it
    Repeat a shape while changing the shape's size, color, or texture. 
    Repeat the size, but change the shape, texture or color. 
    Keep mixing and matching the visual elements (line, shape, texture, color, tone or value).
  4. Subject matter (image) has power to incite the imagination.  Use images unexpectedly to surprise, enlighten, confound, and delight the user. 
  5. Function and usefulness has power to reward the user.  Use function unexpectedly to surprise, enlighten, confound, and delight the user.                top of page

  1. Creative designers intentionally make lists of ideas.
  2. Creative designers intentionally make lists of sketches
  3. Creative designers often repeat the same sketch with many variations.
  4. Creative designers hate to copy, but they love to see how other designers think and surprise us.
  5. Creative designers seek out feedback from those whose opinions they value.
  6. Creative designers push boundaries of function, materials, and fabrication processes.
  7. Creative designers are constantly looking for other alternatives - even opposites are more apt to be considered by creative minds than by the average person. 

Why Make Requirements when Teaching Art and Creativity?
Art teachers are often tempted to say, "On this project you can do whatever you want to do." A very small percentage of the students are naturally inclined to take the risk and the effort to be truly creative when given this option. In a few situations, advanced students have been well conditioned not to get by with clicheȘ work. 

Typically, students are apt to do the safe thing. They will make another one of whatever they have made in the past that was passing. This is not a way to achieve growth. It encourages mediocrity. 

    Some students do not like the requirements and request to be excused from the requirements. The teacher must ask for the student's proposal. If the proposal actually shows creative problem solving for that student, the teacher can feel justified in allowing an exception. Other students will less likely complain if they know they have to come up with a better and more risky alternative in order to be excused from the assigned limitations. 

Connections to Art History and Other Art                             top of page
After students have made their own work, study professional examples.  Assign videos, some slides, books, journals, and/or web pages that have slab constructed work and or work that has special meaning. Jack Earl's (Ohio) ceramics comes to mind. The whole West Coast Funk movement in the 60's and 70's had lots of work that could be studied. John Glick (Michigan) has made many beautiful stoneware boxes. 

    Journals and your favorite Internet search engine will show many examples of this work.

    I believe that one of the best ways for students to make connections with professional work is to have students present what they find by other artists. Have a discussion in class and test the class on these presentations. Asking students to write critiques of work by professionals will help them reach the stage of critical and reflective thinking. 

Other Lessons and Teaching Ideas
Art Lessons Page
Creativity Killers
  Goshen College Art Department Teaching Creativity
Marvin Bartel Courses   Marvin Bartel Home
 Marvin Bartel Artwork Conducting a Critique

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updated November 1,  2005 ©
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