Mother and her friend from town were walking in our woods one autumn day and
Ella Victoria Dobbs picked up a stick and dug out some white clay from the
side of a ditch. “Why, this looks like porcelain clay,” she said. That
comment changed my life in much the same way that her philosophies have
changed the lives of elementary school pupils nationwide.
Miss Dobbs had found white clay in the bank of the little creek that crosses
under El Chapparal Boulevard. Incidentally, El Chapparal park includes our
home, lawn, garden and the “fort,” which was the double garage Dad built out
of rocks from that same stream.
Miss Dobbs, MU professor of art, wrote “Primary Handwork” the year I was
born. It was the first book to pull together ideas that elementary teachers
could use to encourage independent, spontaneous expression in their pupils.
Through art activities this freedom would enhance other facets of their lives.
She tried out those ideas in the University Laboratory School, which I
attended later, and also in the Columbia Public Schools.
“Learning can be fun,” she said. “Creating projects without patterns, or
dictation allows children to solve problems in their own childish ways,” she
said. This develops independent self-expression in art and, more importantly,
A walk through the hallways of our elementary schools today will show you the
results of Miss Dobbs’ early insistence on the importance of freedom of
That day in our woods Mom and Miss Dobbs examined the white clay in her hand.
“I’ll fire some of it to see if it survives porcelain’s high temperatures.”
She did; the clay survived.
I remembered Mom telling me about this when I taught a recreation course at
Christian College, and I took my students out on East Broadway to dig some of
that clay. Every girl put her foot on the shovel and put a cup full of it in a
bag. Back in the dorms they dried it and then wet it just enough to mold some
project. “Make something, anything.” I said, remembering Miss Dobbs. The
variety of “things” was hilarious. Some were little better than the worms
and “nakes” my grandchildren made in their high chairs, much later. But the
learning was fun.
Each semester, after this assignment, dean Elizabeth Kirkmen would say,
“Well, Sue, I see that your girls are at it again! There’s clay on the
doorknobs and stairway carpets again.“
One of the students, an art major, made a lovely teapot, by hand, complete
with spout, handle and lid. How I wished I knew how to fire and glaze these
better pieces. I learned to do that after retiring in 1972.
Digging and working with this Cheltenham stoneware clay was something I’d
planned to do when I had time. Very little had been written about using local
clay when I needed to know about it in 1972.
Having dug, dried, dissolved and strained the clay, I let the buckets set for
several days and then siphoned off the clear water. I dried some on a stack of
newspaper; it was workable in a few hours. My first piece was an Indian with
tomahawk drawn back. He was terrible. Out of proportion. Blank-faced.
Grotesque. An art course in University high school was my only training.
However, Miss Dobbs would have liked my Indian because he was a spontaneous
Although discouraged I stuck with it, listened to Chub’s constructive
criticism and was finally discovered by people who like folk art. There
evolved a series of clay people doing the kinds of things our pioneers had to
do to survive. “Phoebe” gathers goose eggs from a nest in the grass,
“Helen” makes apple butter, “Joe” robs a bee hive, “Hazel” bathes
“Harold” in a small wash tub and so on. Now, with 20-some years of trying,
I’m still at it.
In fact, I’ll be working with this clay during Holiday Open House at Friends
Together Antique Shop from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. If you’d
like to feel the clay and see work in progress, come out East Broadway, a mile
beyond the Highway 63 overpass and watch for our sign.
Join us for a cup of hot cider and see what Ella Victoria Dobbs started when
she and Mom walked in the woods together, before I was born.