The Project: I recently decided to use the Arabian tale of the fisherman and the genie, with its legendary wish granting bottled genie, to delve into the world of Islamic design for a school group I was working with for the Franke Center for the Arts in Marshall, MI. Using a map of the Arabian world we discussed the pre-Islamic origins of the story and traced how it may have likely spread throughout the Islamic world, as Islam spread its reach, starting in the 7th century. We looked at images of the story depicted in popular culture and used that as a stepping stone to discuss geometric Islamic design. I then proceeded to show them images of Islamic design in architectural tile work and Islamic design on pottery. I stressed the Islamic arch form and showed the students how I used that form as my guide when I threw the pots that they were going to be decorating. They were thrilled to amazement that they each would be getting a handmade pot, thrown by me, to decorate for their very own! We looked at how Islamic pottery design built upon Greek pottery design and discussed how technology and design are always built on the work of previous innovations.
Next we looked at how Islamic design employs symmetry found in nature and since we would be working in three dimensions we looked at examples of radial symmetry in flowers and snowflakes. I brought small square boards for each student with radial lines and concentric circle drawn on them for the students to use as a guide for measuring out the designs they would brush onto their pots.
The students now understood that I was going to be taking the pots home to my studio for firing and would be coming back with them during a follow-up visit. The delayed reality of ownership with clay is always something one has to reckon with, but they all put their trust in me, that I would return with their newly acquired pots. Before the class was dismissed I gave the students a small homework assignment. I asked them to consider what wishes they might ask to be granted if a genie were to grant them three wishes. I asked this with the stipulation that one wish must be for the benefit of the world, one wish would be for the benefit of their community, and one wish could be all for their own benefit. They were to think about this until I returned for my second visit at which time they would get there pots back all fired and water tight.
Upon my return the students were glad to see I made good on my promise to bring their precious pots back to them and we all shared our impressively altruistic wishes.
Impact: I have been a freelance teacher of clay and drawing for many years. One thing I know is that students respond very positively to the opportunity to create art using high quality art materials. That being said they can’t just simply be given access to the materials for the opportunity to be worth the investment. They must have something to create art about and must be shown how to use the materials in an inspiring way. Creating art as a reaction to an experience –in this case the experience of a tale from Arabian and Islamic culture- equals educating. It is just as valuable as writing a report about it or giving a presentation on it. Students have so few opportunities to demonstrate their understanding in this way. And, further, without it they often have less understanding. The two go hand in hand: experience + expression = learning. This is especially true for those who struggle with written and oral forms of expression. Programs such as this are the very thing that some students will use as the lifeline with which to pull themselves through their educational career. I know, I was one of them.
Thank you so much to The Franke Center for the Arts for the opportunity to work with these kids in this meaningful way.