By Thea Skinner
Triplicate staff writer
Gayle Hartwick's seventh grade beginning drama class piles into the new downstairs pottery shop at Crescent Elk Middle School. The former woodworking shop-turn storage area-turn pottery shop is the home for slab rollers, kilns, glazes, clay, and Artist-in-Residence Rika Blue.
Energetic students hover around drying racks holding their clay projects. The projects include clay rattles, sculptures, lidded boxes, and handmade tiles.
After they retrieve their clay projects, Blue gathers everyone around the table with glazes and instructs them in applying glaze to their projects.
The children eagerly disperse and begin waxing and glazing their projects.
This clay course is offered as part of the Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness' Artists in Residency program. The program is partly funded by grant money awarded by the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The program also receives funds from Crescent Elk Middle School.
Most of the pottery shop's equipment is on loan from Del Norte County Mental Health and the drying racks were bread racks donated from Williams Bakery.
Holly Austin is project coordinator for Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness and the grant writer for the program.
Austin explains that Blue was an artist in residence at Bess Maxwell Elementary and that the presence of this form of art in the school "increased self-esteem at Bess Maxwell. It increased student attendance- putting a smile on their face and a light in there eyes," says Austin.
"Rieka had to be juried on a statewide level and she is one of our finest artists in the school. When this program came, up we turned to her and said what would you like to do and in what capacity."
The jury process included submission of photos of artwork by Blue and her students.
The efforts led to collaboration. Blue and Austin wrote and proposed a project for Crescent Elk Middle School, and Principal Bill Hartwick soon joined the effort.
"It is a community project that is what is so neat about it," said Hartwick.
He arranged a staff development day around Blue's "Thought Rock" clinic. The workshop used eco-friendly paper clay. The staff participated by writing a positive intention on a piece of paper and placing it into a sculpted clay form. The exterior of the Thought Rock was decorated with colored clay and leaf imprints.
Crescent Elk Middle School offers a variety of visual and performing arts, but only began offering clay sculpting courses through Blue's residency.
"Hopefully by the end of the school year, I will have been able to instruct every student at Crescent Elk," she said.
Blue arrived at the middle school in February 2007, and has partnered with Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness in various programs for more than four years.
"That (Artist in Residence program) has been the most precious training every dynamic of classes and teachers is different," Blue said.
Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness is applying for another grant that, if awarded, will allow Blue to instruct at Crescent Elk through the end of the 2007-08 school year.
"When creating a sculpture, I ask students to create something that can breathe, fly, swim, crawl fantasy creatures are good," Blue said, holding up a clay three-headed snake turtle made by student Cerina Aragones.
"Students get an outlet for their creativity and naturally want to keep coming back to class," she said when one student lingered behind after class was over.
"I love being creative," she said. "Being in school teaching clay work is most satisfying. I love working with people and getting them to create."
Blue has lived in Crescent City for seven years with her husband and daughter. Before coming to Crescent City, she created and displayed her artwork in the intermountain West and the Midwest art circuits, where she focused on pen and ink originals.
Blue plans to move her Talking Crow Studio to a new location this summer and offer focused workshops in clay and mixed media for adults and children.