Ashley Rowley stood in front and center of Kim Lowe’s fourth grade class. Holding a ball of gray dough in her palms, she asked the students if they had ever played with clay before.
In the class of 31, only a handful raised their hands.
“I’ve never touched clay before, only Play-Doh,” said student Katie Miranda, 9. “I’ve always wanted to do something with my hands like this, so it’s new to me and I love it.”
This curiosity and enthusiasm are what officials of the American Museum of Ceramic Art, or AMOCA, are trying to capitalize on the launch of a new program of mobile museums and âpop-upâ virtual tours.
In partnership with the Pomona Unified and Los Angeles Unified school districts, the program offers ceramic-focused educational art classes to students in underfunded K-12 schools within a 60-mile radius of Pomona. The project serves schools in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties.
The initiative attempts to address the difficulties educators, parents and students have in accessing local museums. Whether it’s transportation, clearance vouchers, affordability or, now, the coronavirus pandemic, entering museums has long been a problem for families in the area, said Rowley, who is responsible for education and instructor for AMOCA.
âWe found a range of obstacles that people would encounter that were made worse by the pandemic. So the goal was to take what we do in the museum and bring it to the students, âRowley said.
âUltimately, we will remove as many barriers to entry as possible and open up new possibilities for young learners,â she continued.
Most site tours are led by a museum instructor, like Rowley, and include a reading and an introduction to AMOCA’s artwork. This is followed by a discussion of visual thinking strategies and a 60 minute hands-on clay activity.
With the help of a grant from the California Natural Resources Agency and the support of AMOCA founders Julianne and David Armstrong, the travel program was launched in October and will have its first 36 visits during the school year 2021-22 funded at 100% and free to participate in schools and educators.
Students are greeted by a colorful blue van, named Mudmobile. The vehicle, which was named through a series of community votes, was decorated by a renowned local artist AngelOnce, who was commissioned to create a vibrant work of art that would symbolize the creativity of students and educators.
Meanwhile, the synchronous virtual tours include live tours of AMOCA, located in downtown Pomona, which can last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. The maximum number of participants for each tour is 40 students, each with access to gallery guides, independent learning materials, and hands-on, personalized video demonstrations.
The mobile museum was inspired by the Claymobile Program at Clay Studio in Philadelphia, said Beth Ann Gerstein, executive director of AMOCA.
“Museums exist at the junction of art, community and education, and the mobile museum and virtual tours program brings the museum experience to life outside the walls of our facilities and into the community.” Gerstein said in a press release.
The program is the first of its kind in California, she added.
Pomona Unified Schools Superintendent Richard Martinez said access to such an interactive program is vital not only for students’ creativity, but also for their mental health. The district has implemented other interactive classes such as a book competition at Garey High School and a Conga dance program for children.
âDuring the pandemic it couldn’t be better, especially when it comes to social and emotional support and services for children,â Martinez said during a recent AMOCA visit to Pantera Primary School in Diamond Bar. “Sometimes it’s better than therapy because they can manage it without having the therapist in front of them.”
In his Pantera classroom, Lowe’s students were tasked with making pinch pot clay figures themselves and adding all the features they love. This is intentional, Rowley said, to allow students to lead the lessons with their unique individual assignments.
This semester, Lowe’s class participated in interactive art activities that allowed students to draw themselves using watercolors and markers. From those lessons, Lowe said, the students were “keen to push their creativity.”
Martinez, joined by other PUSD officials, spoke to students about their hobbies, books, and clay creations. Adding noses and big smiles to the mushy figures, Martinez shared a few laughs with the students as they got their hands dirty.
“All of these different programs allow children to escape the stressors they face, whether at home or in their community and whatever comes with the pandemic,” Martinez said.
As they were separated by plexiglass, the masked students laughed and showed their clay faces to their neighbor.
âI’m adding my glasses,â student David Diaz said as he lifted his clay masterpiece into the air. âI can’t wait to come home and show it to my parents. “
The site visit fell on a special day for the 10-year-old.
âToday is my lucky day because it’s my birthday,â he exclaimed. “It’s really cool.”
David’s neighbor, Deion Ainsworth, 10, smiled in agreement. His favorite part of playing with clay, he said, is using his hands.
âYou have to be creative and get dirty,â he said, lifting up his clay-stained palms. “I want to do it again, I hope soon.”