It’s 6:30 in the evening after dinner at the Upper Campus, and ceramics teacher Jody Cooper is in her element.
Tucked into her studio just off to the side of the headmaster’s residence, she is busy giving after-hours instruction. She helps one student trim a bowl, then moves to another and places her hands over theirs to help mold a mug. She moves on to teach another how to properly glaze a ceramic cup produced after several hours of class work.
But this class is different from all her others.
Two nights a week, Ojai Valley School staff and faculty members from both the Upper and Lower campuses trickle into her classroom and take up posts at the wheels.
Since the start of the year, Mrs. Cooper has been donating her time and supplies to teach her colleagues about her passion and profession, extending an invitation to any who are interested in learning the basics of her craft.
Takers have come from all over. They have included bus drivers and kitchen workers, primary and elementary teachers, and barn managers and other equestrian staff.
“Class, for me, is an opportunity to not only feed my artistic soul but a great social activity too,” said Jen Konz, a barn manager at the Upper Campus who began taking the after-hours ceramics class in March.
“I get to spend time with other faculty that I would normally not have a chance to hang out with very much,” she added. “It’s always fun and we laugh a lot. Mrs. Cooper is really fun and quite patient with everyone asking questions and needing guidance.”
The class began when an art teacher at the Lower Campus wanted to introduce ceramics to her younger students, and asked Mrs. Cooper to teach her the fundamentals.
Since then, Mrs. Cooper has mentored dozens of OVS employees, using the same hands-on approach she uses with her high school students. During the summer, she is holding sessions for as many as 11 students, spread over two nights each week.
“I love ceramics, and I love sharing it with people,” Mrs. Cooper said. “Both [high school and adult students] are great. I think they all appreciate it, but I think the adults appreciate it more, because they’re not in school. It’s just something they get to do.”
Mrs. Cooper, an OVS alumna who graduated from Lower in 1971 and Upper in 1974, is a master ceramicist and has studied under some of the best.
She has been teaching ceramics at OVS for 14 years, and her curriculum derives from her knowledge and experience as a professional in the craft. Her high school students start with small projects like rattles and pinch pots, then steadily progress to using the wheel and more difficult and impressive projects.
It’s different for the adults. They go directly to working on the wheel in sessions that are filled with questions and laughter, and that can last upwards of two hours.
On a recent evening, she and Moises Ferrel, a member of Upper’s kitchen staff, worked together to shave off clay from the bottom of a bowl. She leaned in next to him, placing her hands over his, guiding them as they shaped the clay.
“Every once in a while, stop and feel it,” Mrs. Cooper told him. “If it’s starting to give, it’s getting too thin.”
As she’s instructing Mr. Ferrel, equestrian instructor Caitlin Black vies for her help with a piece on the wheel.
“I completely get how my beginning horseback riders are [now],” Ms. Black says of her own frustrations learning something that looks so easy to do, but is so hard to execute.
Then off Mrs. Cooper goes to fix another problem.
“Mrs. Cooper is an amazing teacher,” said OVS transportation director Julie Cook, who has been taking this class since March and who sometimes brings her daughter, OVS alum Belle Cook, along. “I’m inspired to create something I thought I never would. I feel really fortunate to be able to do this.”
For many of the class members, the evenings spent in Mrs. Cooper’s classroom are a retreat from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives, an opportunity for them to be creative, social and hone a newfound skill.
“It’s like therapy for me, I go there and I forget about everything else,” Mr. Ferrel said. “As long as they have the class, I’ll be there.”
The class has been so successful that Mrs. Cooper’s students have joined together and bought clay from her to work with over the summer. She has promised to label the clay with their names and set it aside for them to work with when they meet during their regular class or in their free time.
Count fifth grade teacher Michele Floyd among the ceramics converts.
She plans to utilize a portion of her designated clay by spending time in the studio with her son Connor Floyd, who took Mrs. Cooper’s class this year.
“At the end of the day when I feel like I’m really tired and can’t do anything else, it’s really fun,” said Mrs. Floyd, who has been in the class for about six weeks. “We don’t talk about work. We giggle, we laugh, and I can’t believe how much better I’ve gotten in such a short period of time.”
Click here to view a more complete photo gallery of the ceramics class.