Eric Rempe, ceramics teacher at Coronado High School, gives throwing tips to student Kirsten McSweeney. Photo by Alessandra Selgi-Harrigan
Coronado Eagle and Journal Thursday January 19th, 2006 by Alessandra Selgi-Harrigan
One of the steps to making ceramic pieces is kneading and using a rolling pin. To a novice like me it seems similar to making pizza dough but that is as far as my cooking experience would take me in ceramics. From then on, it was new territory.
Last Friday I spent some time in Eric Rempe's ceramics class at Coronado High School to get a look at what his day is like.
I arrived before first period started and got a chance to talk to Rempe and find out what it is like to teach ceramics and how his passion was sparked. Rempe took ceramics as a junior in high school in Lancaster, Penn. It was something I liked, not something I thought I would pursue as a source of income,” he said. My [ceramics] teacher is the reason I'm where I am today. I had an amazing inspirational teacher.”
Rempe went to Penn State University and once he took his first ceramics class there he knew that's what he wanted to do. After graduating with a double major in ceramics and art education he worked as a masonry supply salesman while making ceramics on nights and weekends at his home studio.
He came to San Diego to attend San Diego State University where he received a master's of fine arts degree. Five years ago, while he was finishing his master's, a friend told him Coronado High School was starting a ceramics class. By the time he applied, the school told him ceramics was on the schedule and 180 students had signed up. Because of the high interest, the school decided to start a ceramics program. I was lucky enough to get to design a program. It was too good to be true,” he said.
Rempe not only had the opportunity to design the program, but the studio as well, with lots of light, cement floors for easing cleaning, two different work stations - where the students use the wheel and another where they do the trimming and finishing touches - two big sinks for cleaning up, storage areas for all five periods and his adjacent office. There is also a room for glazing and outside a shed with four electric kilns. The school offers four beginning ceramics classes and one advanced. [The classes] are all packed. We have to turn kids away,” he said.
Many of these kids have never made anything with their hands before. Here they make something that is potentially passed on to their children and grandchildren and can last hundreds of years,” he said. Rempe has seen the pride in the students's faces when they show a piece they made to their friends. The fact that it's a three-dimensional piece and can have a functional use is also a plus, he said.
Rempe, 35, has a studio at home but has a hard time finding the time to work on his pieces these days. It's a struggle. My work is rewarding, teaching is very rewarding. I try to find a balance. With teaching you can make a difference. Would I make more of a difference as a potter or a teacher?” he asked himself. He has found a solution. He keeps the school's studio open on Sundays starting at 10 a.m. for students to come and catch up on their work or try something new while he works on his own pieces. It gives me a chance to do my work and they see things they would not normally see me do outside the project requirements,” he explained.
At this point in the semester, the beginning students are working on making a pitcher after they made a small creamer. Rempe has taught ceramics at private art schools and at the university level but enjoys teaching high school students because he gets to see them all year. The advanced students' project involves looking at well-known artists' pieces and creating a brand new piece that incorporates the influence of the artist.
The bell rang and the first period students came in. They immediately started working on their projects. Some started from scratch with a piece of clay, others took their pieces from the storage area and either trimmed them or started painting them. Tenth grader Taylor Bailey, 16, was kneading his piece of clay. He said he was wedging the clay - taking the air out of the clay, if not the piece will explode once it's inside the kiln. It's a really fun class. I'm not really good at it, but it's fun,” he said. After wedging the clay he rolled it into a ball and placed it on the wheel. With the help of a pedal the wheel started spinning and he went about throwing a pot - working the clay and adding water with a sponge. Rempe pointed out to the class a pitcher made by a student that featured the head of an eagle as a spout. Students can use their creativity to make the pitcher and can choose to make the spout part it or incorporate it afterwards.
Sophomore and advanced student Nora Kaminsky, 15, came into the classroom to do some research on the Internet on the artist she chose to influence her piece. You get to express your creativity. If you are having an off day you come in and sit down and work. She explained that at the end of the project students get together in groups and critique each other's work which helps for future projects.
In the meantime Rempe was walking around the studio trimming pitchers he made as demos for the students and giving advice. Leticia Ponce, an art student at San Diego State pursuing an art credential, was also in the classroom helping the students and getting hands-on experience teaching.
Rempe explained that for the first six weeks the students did not get to throw because they needed to learn about the elements and techniques of ceramics. In fact, students start with hand building first by making pinch pots while blindfolded so that they rely on their touch rather than the eyesight. The first week the students get to throw the studio is "controlled chaos” with clay flying everywhere and they realize it's not as easy as they thought it would be. Once they are past the frustration and end up with something in their hands they focus on creativity. As the year goes on they get more skillful,” he said.
A few of Rempe's students have sent their pieces to juried shows around the country, and a few others are majoring in ceramics - something that makes him really proud. Rempe reminded the students there were only ten minutes left which means cleaning up and putting the pieces away by covering them with plastic and storing them. I tell my students they are not allowed to say ‘I'm not an artist. Give me a chance to show them wrong,” he said.
During the second and third periods the scene was repeated. Students came in and went to work right away. Rempe pointed out a female student that just a few weeks ago was struggling and now is making nice pieces. He said it's just like that where it clicks for students. The second semester is my favorite because at the end of the period they have something to show, a physical product,” he said. With almost 20 years of working on ceramics, he thinks it would be unrealistic for him to sit down at the wheel and show them how to make a pot, instead he uses a student volunteer who has never done ceramics under his direction to throw a pot for a more realistic portrayal of what the students will be faced with.
[Ceramics] is really cool. I'm learning from the best,” said Daniel Pressler, 18, about Rempe while he was throwing a pot. I used to think ceramics was stupid and my counselor told me, ‘I'll put you in the class anyway.' ”
When Rempe wakes up in the morning he's glad to go to work and do something he really enjoys. It's a real treat to make a living doing something really valuable,” he said.
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