Mom, her friend - Ella Victoria Dobbs - and I were off to the woods one spring day, and Miss Dobbs stopped when she saw some white earth in the bank of a small stream. She clawed out some of the moist material and "went ape" over it. "This is almost like porcelain," she said and kept a sample.
Photo courtesy of Sue Gerard photo
Sue digs into a mound of white Cheltenham clay that was exposed by road work on Route WW during the 1960s.
I was just a kid - perhaps 8 or 9 - but this white stuff was fun to hold and to smooth into something thin or round like a ball.
Miss Dobbs took her sample to the University of Missouri-Columbia art department - where she taught - and dried it, fired it in a pottery kiln and called to tell Mom that it withstood a lot of heat and didn’t warp or break. That didn’t seem important to me! I had a mule to ride, fish and frogs to catch and daily chores to do on our dairy farm. I was also begging for a bicycle. Miss Dobbs’ discovery was important to her, and I didn’t forget that "clay is a link with the past!"
When my husband, Chub Gerard, was in the military during World War II, we bought 27 "worthless" acres from my Dad and later built a home there.
When East Broadway became Route WW, the highway department took more than half an acre of our land and widened the right of way. Their machines opened up a wonderful bank of the same clay that Miss Dobbs had tested at the university’s art department so many years before. She passed away, and I knew no one who had dug clay.
I made some crude figurines with what I considered to be "my clay" because the state had paid us nothing for the land.
All I knew about clay was this: If it is thoroughly dry - all the way through - it will take in water and can be shaped endlessly. I made silly things, dried them, crushed them and moistened the same clay to use again and again. I wanted to share that experience with my Christian College class in recreational leadership. I shared Miss Dobbs’ revolutionary idea for elementary school art classes: to encourage children to be individually creative with a wide variety of materials, as opposed to teaching specifics for all to follow.
I needed more information about how to use the local clay that those bulldozers had exposed in my yard!
In libraries and book stores I found no directions for preparing local pottery clay. Finally I found a large expensive book that had a half page about using local clay, and I memorized it.
It was approximately this: "Dig, dry and crush clay; dissolve in lots of water; strain through small mesh sieves; siphon off water and dry it until it can be handled without sticking to hands. Shape an object and dry it thoroughly. Fire in a kiln to make it hard as a rock."
I learned a lot by trial and error, too. In the 1950s the Christian College bus took my students and me to that big hillside of clay; each of the 25 students dug her own small bag full. I told them to make something. Their "things" were as diverse as the students themselves! There were turtles, frogs, pin trays, mugs, frat symbols - all with obvious student ingenuity. The dean of women, Elizabeth Kirkman, said, "Sue, I see you’ve been digging clay again; it’s on door knobs and stair rails."
When we started to that mound to dig after that, I made it plain that "if you make a mess - at anything - you must clean it up!"