Students Join Acclaimed Native American Artist Diane Schenandoah for a Virtual Clay Hand-Building Workshop

Emma Gutmann, Maroon-News Staff

In preparation for the University Museums’ interactive clay hand building activity with award-winning Indigenous artist Diane Schenandoah, the first 50 students to sign up received a “Be A Maker” (BAM) activity box at their dorm or apartment. Each box contained three pounds of clay, some popsicle sticks, a spray bottle, a red bowl, ribbons, parchment paper and plastic bags.

With this generous supply of materials, Colgate community members convened over Zoom to hear a presentation about Diane Schenandoah’s processes and inspirations for her artwork, observe her striking sculptures and other clay creations and take an art class about the simple yet meticulous art of clay hand building. 

“I was intrigued by the background of the artist and I thought her work was simply breathtaking. Her fascination [with] the protective nature of the mother-child bond is something that she explores extensively. I thought that it was particularly interesting in the context of the Native American folklore that she told us about as well,” sophomore Tavy Alford-Sanchez said.

Schenandoah shared several pieces that were inspired by the culture and traditional teachings of Haudenosaunee, many of which featured the honoring of women as life-givers. One beautiful sculpture that she shared in her slideshow pictured a woman blooming out of a bud with her hair flowing down like snow melting in the spring — a tribute to her favorite season.

Diane spoke a lot to the clay that she used in her projects as well as the actual subjects and executions of them. Especially talking about collecting New York clay, and the significance of place when it comes to clay, and especially from the perspective of an indigenous woman,” junior Elizabeth Svach said.

Although this project involved commercially produced water-based clay, Schenandoah discussed how she often goes out to New York rivers to gather her own natural clay, which adds another element of Mother Earth into her art. She recommended this hands-on collection of materials to the class if they were interested in crafting with clay more in the future.

During the workshop portion of the event, Schenandoah taught participants coiling in an informative and engaging way, answering questions from the class and providing personal tips to help the eager artists create the most aesthetic and durable products.

“Diane has such a calm, encouraging energy. I have been taught the coil technique for hand-building before, but I think Diane has been my most effective teacher. Her work is amazing, yet she was very supportive of beginners,” junior Ariel Feinberg said. 

Students with any degree of prior experience learned how to properly wedge and score their clay and were even left with two extra pounds of clay to either continue their piece or create others later on. Once everyone finished their mini pots, bowls or cups, the Zoom call was filled with many smiling and even masked faces displaying their masterpieces to Schenandoah and their peers.

“I would definitely recommend the BAM activity boxes to other Colgate students and I hope to attend more in the future. With so many of our regular activities being canceled this year it was nice to spend a Saturday afternoon doing something fun and creative!” senior Johanna Burke said.

Whether looking to wind down alone or creatively compete with roommates, the “Be A Maker” series is a fun and interactive idea which proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience; one that generates new knowledge, skills and a personalized souvenir to show for it.