Sullivan Art teacher Nia Haralampopoulos is thrilled. Sullivan Art teacher Nia Haralampopoulos is thrilled. Roger C. Sullivan High School has a new kiln — an Amoco Excel Select Fire, to be exact — thanks to a joint fund-raising effort by Sullivan administration and Friends of Sullivan.
“I’ve been here for 20 years, and the old one was here when I came.” It was, she said, on its last legs, and “getting more and more expensive to repair.”
There was worry that Sullivan might have to give up on its well-loved ceramics class when the old kiln finally baked itself out.
Principal Chad Thomas puts the kiln into this perspective: “The new kiln is a part of a larger vision for Sullivan, personalizing learning for each student and celebrating the arts as a part of our education. It’s rare for a school of 700 to have two arts and two music teachers, and Sullivan is blessed to have that. The new kiln is a tangible, practical piece of that vision.”
To people who might say, given everything else that needs to be fixed in the aging building, spending approximately $5000 for a kiln to turn student clay into fragile ceramics does raise the question of why such an old-fashioned process — shaping clay by hand into snap bowls with bright glazes— is still valuable for young minds in Chicago in 2020.
Ms. Haralampopoulos has an answer for that: “Sullivan always has served a diverse population. Over the years what has changed is where students have come from. But there always has been a high level of trauma among them. Learning to work patiently with your hands offers them all a certain level of calming therapy.” It also fosters social interactions across cultural divides not often possible in more academic classes.
FOS board member Dorothy Gregory puts the meaning of the new kiln this way: “It is the final step in the creative output of the students, some of whom probably see the art class as their lifeline, when the academics are really stressing them. The arts in high school offer an outlet that many young people crave. Nia's programs really turn her students' creativity into some very special pieces that deserve a professional finish.”
Making things with clay is not a speedy process. To do it right, you have to slow down and feel what you are doing. You have to work with the clay. It is a process demands close attention and creates reflection.
“Ceramics class is not a class with concrete, right-or-wrong answers. It’s a process of many different solutions.” Ms. Haralampopoulos adds that this creates situations of students cooperating, sharing techniques they have learned and solving problems.”
New lately in her class is this rule: No headphones.“This form of art,” she says, is “unplugged. You often do it in silence. Students need to know silence, so they can hear their own voices.”
Creating ceramics gives immediate achievement, along with opportunity for individual experimentation in shape, style, color and meaning. “Students,” she adds, “need that, developmentally. Plus, in this class, there is the wow factor of opening the kiln, to see what they have created…what does the glaze look like; are there cracks; did the whole thing explode in the heat?”
The new, all digital kiln is far smore efficient than the old one. It allows Ms. Haralampopoulos more than two firings per week, meaning she can offer her ceramics class to even more students than her current roster of 150 art students, and, if she can swing it, include freshman.
It’s also much safer.
“It shuts off by itself,” Ms. Haralampopoulos says with a new pride of ownership smile.
Given that this machine gets hot enough inside to melt glass, this seems like a really good thing. Especially when it helps to keep a traditional art form alive at Sullivan High School.