Tahlequah Daily Press

June 5, 2013

Students build art from the ground up

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — One man’s dirt is another man’s treasure – when it can be turned into art.

Students of Crystal Hanna’s pottery class learned to find clay, dig it up and process it into use for creating art objects recently at the Cherokee Heritage Center chapel.

Side by side, the artists mashed, molded, smoothed, drew designs and pinched their creations into the shapes they desired. Chatting as they worked, they shared camaraderie as each student learned the steps in turning clay into art. They happily put finishing designs on their bowls, pipes and other objects.

Instructor Crystal Hanna stopped to visit with each student, offering suggestions, answering questions, always with a soft voice and a smile of encouragement following her words. She shared history, stories and information as she interacted with students.

The class began with a field trip to collect clay. Hanna also brought clay from a neighbor’s pond near Tulsa in case they didn’t find what they needed, or enough of what they needed, for the class. They crushed it, sifted it, moistened it, and “wedged” it, or worked it to get the bubbles out. For this class, they did all the steps except firing the finished pieces.

Tonia Weavel, education director for the Heritage Center, said the class approached the art medium from the beginning, “digging clay from the ground.”

A husband and wife came to the class for a hands-on experience. Mic and Aja Burns of Pocola spent the day together doing something they enjoy.

“We really wanted a hands-on experience – locating, crushing, sifting. You can’t learn that watching someone do it,” Mic said. “I enjoyed wedging this morning more than bashing, turning what would look like dirt into something workable.”

He counts his money when he considers how to spend it.

“I don’t have to buy clay, because it’s all around us. If I would have had dry clay before, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it,” Burns said.

Aja wanted to see the process from the beginning.

“I’ve looked online and seen the process, but actually doing it is the best way to learn,” she said. “Watching her use tools is invaluable. I had yet to be able to use a paddle, and that was pretty cool. Crystal came with a wealth of knowledge and a ton of tools.”

Hanna’s passion for teaching and making pottery, as well as her affection and reverence for her own teacher, comes across as she works and talks with the class.

“It’s amazing that you can take your clay out of the ground and make something permanent,” said Hanna.

Weavel explained a bit of history the students might not have known.

“Crystal learned from what Cherokees consider the master, Anna Mitchell, who rebuilt the traditional pottery movement,” said Weavel.

Hanna picked up the story.

“Anna’s husband was descended from Sequoyah and he wanted a clay pipe like the one Sequoyah had,” said Hanna. “Her children were still at home when she started working with clay. The first pipe she made was not so good, so she did research, and studied all she could about the old ways of doing it. She started a legacy for us today.”

Mitchell mentored Hanna, who carries on the tradition.

“Because I met Anna, [pottery-making] has a true meaning for me,” said Hanna. “I carry on the legacy and tradition she started.”

Hanna met Mitchell because she felt she had to. Usually a shy person, Hanna contacted the Red Earth staff when Mitchell was the “Honored One,” she said.

“In 1988 or ‘89, I really wanted to meet her. They took my name and number at Red Earth and said she would contact me if she was interested. She called me and we talked. She told me she thought I’d make a really good apprentice,” Hanna said.

The began working together that March. Mitchell reminded Hanna of her own mother, who was also a fullblood.

“I miss her,” Hanna said, tears coming to her eyes. “She was very patient and didn’t miss any steps. She’d make you do it.”

Hanna teaches because of Mitchell’s influence.

“That’s what she wanted – whatever we learned, to pass it on to the next generation,” said Hanna. “We need to help keep our traditional arts alive. It keeps our culture alive through art.”

Culture brought Jill Whitekiller from Idaho. She follows the Heritage Center on Facebook.

“My heritage is very important to me. This is an opportunity for me to learn more about my culture and to learn traditional arts and crafts,” Whitekiller said. “It’s important to me to have that and to show my daughters.”

The classes are set to allow the public to experience Cherokee culture on a very personal basis, Weavel said.

“They receive one-on-one instruction,” said Weavel. “The classes give people insight into the art. Many times, people develop a love for it. It can pique their interest and they may continue to study.”

Sally Briggs, of Locust Grove, has taken several classes at the Heritage Center, and this was her fifth class with Hanna. She was putting designs on friendship pipes she made Saturday afternoon.

“I love them all. They’re very interesting, educational, fun, and I like meeting the people who take them. It carries on the heritage of learning the different ways the ancestors did things,” Briggs said.

Many people mistakenly believe all pipes are peace pipes, Hanna said.


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