Christmas morning 2003 my husband surprised with me this painting.
He commissioned it for me in honor of our newly created Jeremiah Project. I was so touched I cried for the rest of the day. The painting represented his belief in an idea I’d had to create a pottery program for underserved middle school aged students. The second story of a Congregational Church in Winter Park, Florida housed our ceramics studio. We hoped art could serve as a bridge crossing the economic and racial divide of east and west Winter Park.
The program’s name was inspired by a verse from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah…
“I went down to the potter’s house and there he was working at his wheel…The vessel he was making was spoiled in the potter’s hand and he reworked it into another vessel that seemed good to him…then the Lord said, just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”
“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand”. That line served as a metaphor for our program. Clay comes from the ground and grounds those who touch it; clay requires centering on the potter’s wheel before it can be shaped; clay is forgiving, it can be remolded if we make a mistake; shaping a vessel simulates the power we have to shape our own lives. These were the messages we hoped, ever so subtly, to convey. It’s amazing how a ball of clay and a spinning wheel ground and center even the most anxious of pupils. Creative expression can be an oasis, offering a refuge for kids whose lives are often fraught with turmoil and hardship.
I’m thinking about the origins of the Jeremiah Project as I contemplate its demise. As of August 1, 2021, the Jeremiah Project ceased to be. This is my eulogy for the program and my identity as its director.
Covid-19 slammed shut our studio doors in March of 2020. The pandemic made our program inaccessible for our Future Potters of America pupils. The Jeremiah Project was not deemed an essential service. We did not provide meals or money. In the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to argue the comparable value of an arts program versus a survival program. People often view the arts as disposable, but often they are the answer.
While providing opportunities for creative expression was a key component, the Jeremiah Project aspired to something broader for the kids we served. We encouraged students to take risks within the confines of a safe environment, to think bigger, to stretch their imaginations. It takes a measure of bravery even to show up at a strange church and work in a strange medium creating something out of nothing. The kids arrived shy, faces buried in their cell phones relying on the comfort of their companions. Creativity can be an intimidating concept but unfailingly we would see comfort levels increase as a ball of clay morphed into a mug or bowl. Ear-to-ear grins reflected pride of accomplishment.
Aside from the pottery, we hoped critical and creative thinking skills were the real treasures making it home in their backpacks. Each step in the development of a clay dragon or cereal bowl informs the next. That is the essence of the creative process. One step informing the next.
Jeremiah served more than twenty-five hundred students over the course of our eighteen-year tenure. The words of the kids were our rewards.
“The pottery class lets me try out a new type of art that I had never done before and I’m actually really good at it!” – Dominic
“Pottery is really cool because I got to make something and then actually use it which I’ve never been able to do before. I use the bowl I made in class all the time!” – Beatrice
“I like doing hands-on things so I really enjoyed working with clay because I got to build things and it was okay if I messed up because I could put it back together again. Working with clay is my new favorite type of art and taught me that I can be an artist in my own way!” – Reggie
“In just one week I have made enough dishes for a whole meal!” – Issac
Confident in their increased pottery proficiencies, students would assert, “I’m going to be a potter when I grow up.” Whether potter or engineer, we just hoped their new-found skill sets would encourage them to imagine a bigger future.
It’s quiet as we pack up pottery tools, wheels, and glazes. Quiet has never been a word used to describe the atmosphere in our studio. Typically, the second floor of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park is filled with the boisterous voices of our students. They took turns challenging, goading, and teasing each other as they painstakingly embellished an origami bowl or added wings to an emerging dragon. Shelves formerly loaded with wheel thrown cereal bowls, woven clay trays, or slab mugs are noticeably devoid of clay projects. I’m going to miss being in proximity with our student peeps. Serving as the director of the Jeremiah Project has been the honor of a lifetime.