by Carrie Kirk
Sometimes the practice of art can produce more than just the created piece. Artist and teacher Ellen Cornelius has seen this first hand. Thirty years and counting, Ellen has taught art lessons in her basement studio to both children and adults and has seen a community develop and students mature in each and every class. "I expect kids (and adults) to take on responsibility," Ellen says.
With a background in painting, Ellen began to teach these classes using all types of media, but the children's clamoring for clay changed all that. Because the kids loved clay's touch and feel, Ellen switched solely to using clay in the classes about twenty years ago. "The beauty of clay," says Ellen, "is even though the piece isn't perfect, that's okay. And then when you add glaze...well, that's magic to a kid." That magic has led to a handful of "lifers" in Ellen's classes. Since the age of four, a Chatard student continues to take classes with Ellen. Maybe it's the small class size and six students per the two instructors that lead children back into the basement of messy fun.
My two boys have taken some of Ellen's classes over the years. Of course, I was thrilled to then have an assortment of clay sculptures that call my shelves and desk home, but I also was so impressed with what I saw happening down in the confines of Ellen's basement. My kids - and everyone else's - were taking care of themselves. Occasionally a student might request some help, calling for "Mrs. C," but all-in-all they were very self-sufficient. "Kids these days don't have the chance to just get up and get things," Ellen explains. She's right. In many schools today, it seems every student's movement must be dictated by a pass, a request and many times a denial. Ellen says that children need an opportunity to take ownership and rise to the occasion. Practicing an art might just organically give them that opportunity.
Another high note of a child studying clay with Ellen is the learned art of patience. In an age where most things are instantaneous, it's good practice for children to just...have...to...wait. When there are only so many colors to go around the table, somebody has to be at the end of the line. And that - whether we like it or not - is part of being a mature person also.
I asked Ellen if she thought the diminishing time most students spend in the school art room has added to the popularity of her classes. She was very diplomatic, pointing out that clay is messy and needs more time with the firing, glazing and firing again. It's a difficult thing for a teacher to teach and control when he has 28+ kids diving into a project. That's the beauty of Ellen's class and space - it is all about the clay in a warm and intimate environment. Plus, it's right down from Illinois Street Food Emporium and The Flying Cupcake. You know where I'm going with this.
So the secret is out about this rare Indianapolis find. Now you know of a lovely place where your child can lose him or herself into a big batch of wet clay while learning some responsibility. Pass it on and go get a cupcake while you're at it.