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The Makers’ Movement: What’s Clay Got to Do with It?

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I’m just back from a week in London, and what a week it was! Highlights included a massive exhibit on Oceania at the Royal Gallery; a tour of architect Sir John Soane’s amazing house/museum, with its hundreds of paintings and sculptures, including the entirety of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress; and FIVE plays in six days. I saw Andre Holland in Othello (with the inimitable Mark Rylance as Iago) at the Globe and a modern musical adaptation of Twelfth Night that I’ll never forget, along with Everybody’s Talking about Jamie (look it up!) and a fabulous production of Mrs. Dalloway at a small local theater, with five actors taking all the parts. Food for the mind and the soul.


All this theater got me thinking about my great good fortune in teaching at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English at the Vermont campus, with its magnificent theatrical productions every summer. Led by Brian McEleney from Trinity Rep, the group includes Equity actors from Trinity as well as students and faculty at Bread Loaf, and together they mount an entire production from start to finish in five weeks: it is miraculous, and I’ve seen some of the best theater of my life there. Last summer, Brian adapted Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities as a play, and the result was galvanizing, as the production spoke directly to the political situation we find ourselves in today. It was, again, something I’ll never forget, and, again, it made me think of how important it is for students to see plays as more than words on a page, as something a playwright has made, crafted, shaped, and gifted us with.


My hostess and friend in London, Julia Rowntree, is famous for making things, and especially things in clay. She is passionate about the need for all of us to connect to the world through our hands and sees claymaking as one crucial way to do so. She’s been at this work for decades, and her Clayground Collective has been highly influential in Britain’s cultural landscape, bringing claymaking projects into schools all over the UK and sponsoring innumerable community projects. For example, in 2015 the Collective’s canal-based project, Clay Cargo, sponsored a weekend during which 3,000 people built A Monument to the City and its Anonymous Makers using 5 tons of clay and erected it beside the Regent’s Canal at Granary Square in King’s Cross. 3,000 people doing claymaking! (You can see a film about this project here, and you can find out much more about the Collective in a recently-published book of Julia’s, Clay in Common, available on Amazon.)


I share Julia’s enthusiasm for making and for the makers’ movement, which is associated in this country with the participatory culture that Henry Jenkins and others have documented so extensively. More to the point of this blog, however, I believe that writing is an important form of making. In fact, we used to write on clay—and artists, of course, still do. Whatever we write on, we are shaping, crafting, forming ideas, concepts, arguments, dreams: we are part of those anonymous makers Julia and her colleagues celebrate.


I don’t think our students often think of writing in this way, however, and to that end we have work to do. In our classes, in our tutoring, and in our mentoring we need to present and represent writing in this light: as something we make with our hands and our brains, and as something we set out in the world for others to engage with, respond to, and enjoy. Maybe it’s time to bring some clay tablets to our classrooms and see what happens!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 690404 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

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Mark Pratter

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