Learning to Lean In: Ceramics on Cape Cod — Kenna Mateos


When I submitted my proposal for this summer’s travel grant, I was filled with enthusiasm. In past summers, I would pick a coastal community, unplug from technology, and recharge. Being someone whose main work is done in an office, I always admire the lower school teachers’ poise, abilities to maintain their poker faces, and quick-wittedness when faced with awkward and sometimes difficult situations.

I didn’t consider how my summer’s experiences might challenge me, and therefore make me uncomfortable. My plan was to take a week-long artist workshop at Truro Center for the Arts in wheel-throwing. Let me begin by saying that I took ceramics in undergrad – hand-building – and I wasn’t bad… or I thought I wasn’t too bad, so wheel-throwing couldn’t be too difficult, right?

Before I left for Cape Cod, I decided that now was the time to continue to challenge myself. Feeling motivated and inspired upon receiving my travel grant, I signed up to teach a kids’ class with the Welcome Home JC, which is an organization that I have been volunteering with. Hesitant, I spoke with Alain Mentha, who runs the program. I told him about the printmaking class I’d like to host for the kids.

“Fantastic! It’s all about exposing them to new experiences!”

Still unsure of my own abilities to lead anything, let alone a class, I reached out to lower school art teacher, Ann Schaumburger, who sat with me and walked me through a whole lesson: have all the kids sit at seats, ask them what they know about printmaking, model the work, etc. I decided I’d have the kids create prints of their favorite animals. Ann continued, “now you want them to think about what they’re going to draw before they begin, since printmaking isn’t very forgiving; is their animal standing still or is it in motion?” Wow, I never even thought about that. What did I get myself into? Continuing to assure me, Ann handed me loads and loads of foam sheets and paper for printmaking. “You’re going to do great, kid, you have plenty of time to prepare,” she said, assuringly. I put my nervousness to the side and looked forward to taking in all that Cape Cod had to offer.

Upon arriving at the studio, I thought about all the amazing things I’d be able to make that week – mugs, pots, plates, the works! Boy, was I wrong. We got a quick intro to the studio and I noticed all of the beautiful pottery left behind by previous instructors. I watched Chris, the instructor, model how to center the clay on the pottery wheel. Eager, I grabbed my ball of clay and it flew off of the wheel as soon as I stepped on the pedal. That moment was quite humbling, if not embarrassing.

“You have to lean into the wheel with your elbows tucked in, like this,” Chris demonstrated. Leaning in – in many ways – was so uncomfortable, especially when you reach the realization that you aren’t good at something; not because you aren’t good at it, but because you’ve never tried it before. Days two and three consisted of building up our pottery, which was surprisingly difficult. Day four, when I thought my measly little clay cup was ready to be fired, Chris challenged us and asked us to make snug-fitting lids for our vessels. My ‘lid’ didn’t quite fit, but considering how difficult the whole process was, I was proud of my little clay cup. Needless to say, the rest of the week included many more humbling moments.

I was true to my hopes in unplugging and resetting myself, evident by the few pictures I snapped. I got plenty of downtime at the Cape; Inspired by Elizabeth’s Kindergarten curriculum, I even took up birdwatching from my balcony in the mornings! 

On the drive back to New Jersey, my mind raced as I rehearsed my lines and played scenarios of teaching fails in my head; I was to teach my printmaking class later that evening. I entered my mini art class at Welcome Home JC and the kids’ curiosity and enthusiasm to learn were clear, and Ann was right –I did great.

My learning experiences this summer were so much fun — much like I imagine the learning experiences of the lower school students to be. It was hands-on, took a lot of courage, required lots of trial and error, and was uncomfortable at times; again, much like I imagine the learning experiences of our own lower school students to be. When I think about all the times our littlest kids ask me to do or make something for them at worktime because they say they “aren’t good at it,” or “can’t do it,” or when the fourth graders have to summon all the courage they can to get in front of an audience to host lower school gathering, it reminds me of my own process of learning as an adult and realize that learning is and will continue to be a lifelong experience.