Breaking the Mold: Retiring art teacher takes time to craft students’ talents, confidence

By on May 3, 2017
Judy Davies stands near a collection of large, unfired pots made by students in her 3D art class at Cocalico High School.

Judy Davies stands near a collection of large, unfired pots made by students in her 3D art class at Cocalico High School.

Art teacher Judy Davies stands opposite Johnny Coble with a pottery wheel between them, her clay-coated fingers supporting the widening sides of an earthenware bowl.

“I want to cry,” Coble says, with exaggerated disappointment.

“It’s OK, we’re starting again,” Davies reassures him, as he leans in to soak the base with a wet sponge.

Just moments ago, Coble watched helplessly as another bowl fell in on itself. But now he’s got a new plan: Coble wants to give this take an hour-glass shape.

“Pottery is problem-solving at its best,” says Davies. “It’s not black and white. Sometimes mistakes are the best thing that can happen in a day.”

The key to becoming a successful potter, she says, is doing it again and again, learning from mistakes and building confidence.

After 37 years of teaching pottery and other 3D art forms over and over again, Davies is retiring from Cocalico High School in June.

She’s been so devoted to teaching others that she hasn’t made much of her own art in the last three decades. But those who’ve seen Davies in action-with lessons that are as much about life as they are about any specific medium-say her teaching is an art form in its own right.

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Davies’ classroom, built just for her program about 15 years ago, is packed with colorful creations in different stages of completion.

Masks adorn the wall, their faces and attachments representing genres from theatrical to animalistic.

Floor-to-ceiling cabinets are filled with pottery in progress, bowls imprinted with painstaking designs stacked next to curved plates made in drape molds and all of them tucked under denim aprons ready for another day’s work.

Atop every shelf and in the kiln room behind her students’ workspace, dozens of finished pots in shades of bisque, brick red, speckled green await entry in the school’s annual art show.

It is throwing with which Davies remains enamored, consulting with students as they sit at pedal-powered wheels or helping them select the best tools for trim work. Though she encourages independence, she’s there to walk students through critical steps (moving a finished piece from the wheel to a drying area) and pick up the pieces (sometimes literally) when problems arise.

On a recent Wednesday, she taught a mix of experienced potters and rookies in their first semester. The mix of skill levels intentional.

“We work as a family because they have to get along and interact with each other,” Davies says. “If I can’t help them when their pot is falling apart, someone else can.”

While the district will continue its 3D program, Principal Chris Irvine says Davies’ absence will be noticeable.

“It’s not even the pottery part,” he says. “It’s the way she works with kids. They flock to her. They’re engaged and active. It’s a no-slack zone.”

Davies graduated from Kutztown University in 1980 and spent her entire career at Cocalico. She landed in the district because her husband, Dave, had started the year before as a science teacher at Cocalico Middle School.

Dave Davies later served as middle school principal, high school principal and an assistant superintendent before retiring in 2013.

They worked together for 33 years, Davies taking a little time off after the birth of each of the couple’s three daughters.

But she loved nurturing other children, too, watching two generations master basic skills and then explode with talent as they explored advanced techniques.

Students might complete seven to eight pieces in a semester. Many grace the high school lobby in a spot marked for art student of the month; others are auctioned off to benefit the Cocalico Education Foundation.

Senior Hannah Palm has donated some of work, and has multiple pieces on display in her family’s dining room. She prefers to work in large scale, then adds small details through glazing and scoring.

“I just love creating new things,” Palm says. “I like being able to go into a store and seeing something I like and knowing I could make that.”

Davies counts several professional artists among her students.

Her masters included a concentration in art for students with special needs, and she has taught the joys of pottery to a blind student and students with autism.

She’s also coached basketball, softball and volleyball, in addition to advising art and other student clubs and working with student teachers from Millersville University.

She’s built up the program and helped secure supplies that sustained it, even when other districts did away with extensive 3D programs.

In Davies’ classroom, all of the clay rejected by other Cocalico students, including broken or unloved elementary projects, are soaked and repurposed as fresh clay. One of the first skills students master is shoveling wet clay into a pug mill that squeezes out tubes sized for spinning.

If working on molds, students have a selection of shapes and sizes thanks to local businesses that donated dozens of unneeded casts.

Students get so caught up in their projects that there’s often a line to fire in the two kilns, which fire as high as 2,000 degrees.

As Irvine says, “You can’t imagine how much clay has come out of here in the last 20 years.”

Often found sitting on front porches throughout the Cocalico community, that artwork — and the students inspired to make it — will be Davies’ legacy for years to come.

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