New kiln expands artistic possibilities for Coahulla Creek students

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

Coahulla Creek High School art teacher Julie Norton, left, talks with Megan Painter, 17, about Painter's clay project. 

DALTON, Ga. — Thanks to three substantial grants — and the indefatigable fundraising efforts of teacher Julie Norton — Coahulla Creek art students now have access to a kiln for ceramics pieces.

"I've always had a desire to have a kiln, and my co-workers are probably as happy about this as my students, because they know how much I wanted it," Norton said with a laugh. "It's super exciting."

Kilns aren't cheap, as "a kiln and kiln furniture cost about $4,000," said Norton, who has been an art instructor at Coahulla Creek since the school opened. She also needed to provide ventilation in her room — even adding a PVC pipe across the ceiling — and do electrical work, which added to the costs.

"Getting a kiln is one thing, but getting it installed is another," she said. "Fortunately, our community really supports schools, and that gave me the motivation to keep applying for grants."

The project first gained "momentum" in 2019 when the Whitfield Education Foundation gave Norton a $3,000 innovative teaching grant for the kiln, she said. Smitty Barnett, executive director of the foundation, is a former band director and "a huge advocate for the arts."

Norton "is a very committed teacher doing wonderful work," and she was one of more than 50 teachers in Whitfield County Schools to receive grants in this latest round of funding, Barnett said. "We are committed to supporting all aspects of our system, including the fine arts, (and) we are thankful for the work of teachers like Norton who go 'outside of the box' to create intrinsically motivating lessons and projects."

Another booster of the arts is David Aft, president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia, and that organization gave Norton a $4,000 grant, Norton said. Applying "was a very easy process."

Shaw Industries offered a $5,000 grant, so — coupled with the other fundraising Norton did earlier — she actually ended up with "more than I was expecting," she said. She's utilizing remaining funds to purchase two wheels for thrown-pottery, shelves to store in-progress projects, and glazes.

On a recent day, students in one of Norton's advanced art classes were busy crafting pottery pieces for collaborative totem poles. They worked in groups of four, and each had its own theme, such as Greek mythology, ocean creatures, sports and world leaders.

In the Greek mythology group, junior Karla Olvera was making a butterfly to represent Persephone, the goddess of vegetation and agriculture whose mythical tale has also come to symbolize the changing of seasons, Olvera said. "I'm not great at sculpting, yet, but it's good practice."

Olvera has taken several art classes at Coahulla Creek, and she was in advanced art courses at North Whitfield Middle School, she said. "As a kid, I always liked drawing, and it grew into something I really liked."

She's grateful her high school now has a kiln, since she was able to do some pottery in middle school and enjoyed it, she said. "Now we have another opportunity" at Coahulla Creek.

This project has taught her about the value of teamwork, since she has to coordinate her piece with others in her group for their final totem pole, she said. "Communication is key."

In this assignment, students "have to take their creative thoughts and marry them with the creative thoughts of others," Norton said. "Part of what makes our country great is we have creative thinkers."

Olvera is looking forward to more possibilities with ceramics, as "I want to make some little cups and stuff," she said. "I made a sugar skull in middle school, and I still use it."

If junior Raul Hernandez had free rein with the kiln, he'd create decorative badges representing his favorite soccer club, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

The kiln and ceramics work allows students to acquire "different skill sets, and it adds a new material we can use," he said. "I like hands-on (art), and clay gives you a different feel."

He's sculpting Zeus for his totem project, adding details to the god's countenance, such as lightning, he said. "I'm not used to the clay, so it's difficult to make what I drew" on paper.

Students began pottery work shortly before the Christmas holiday break, creating simple pieces — like Christmas ornaments and coasters — "just to get used to the kiln," which can reach 1,945 degrees, Norton said. Since so few have clay experience, "they don't have much confidence, yet."

Especially in advanced art classes, students are asked to create more complex pieces, but they lacked ceramics opportunities without a kiln, Norton said. "We've done a lot of papier-mâché, but there's only so much of that you can do."

Norton's students will have an opportunity to display their clay pieces — as well as other art — this spring during the high school's third annual arts showcase, she said. In addition, other arts, such as music and singing, are featured, and Coahulla Creek's middle and elementary "feeder" schools also join in the festivities.

Norton's students understand this kiln will benefit not only them, but future generations, she said. "A kiln can last 20-30 years, so it could have an impact on some of the children of these students."

Art like this "allows kids to think differently, and they learn to be problem-solvers," she added. For some students, "art is why they come to school."

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