Wheels turn, banter flows easily.
Though the school day has ended, the ceramics room at the Upper Campus this evening is well lit and well filled.
As she has for the past three years, Ojai Valley School ceramics teacher Jody Cooper has thrown open her studio doors after hours, offering her expert instruction to faculty and staff for two-hour-long evening lessons.
These sessions take place twice a week, and the high schoolers are barred from the studio during those hours to give the staff time to be not teachers or authority figures, but full-fledged students.
“It’s my passion, I love it,” said Mrs. Cooper, who has been teaching at the Upper Campus for more than 15 years. “I love everything about it, but teaching is what I love best. I’m blessed to have a job where I can do what I am passionate about, and share it with everybody.”
And so she does.
A master ceramicist, who has studied under some of the best in the craft, Mrs. Cooper launched the faculty class three years ago, shortly after completion of the Pearson Art Center at the Lower Campus. The art center has a ceramics studio, and Lower Campus art teacher Patty Campbell reached out to Mrs. Cooper for help improving her clay skills so she could better instruct the lower students.
Since then, the faculty class has grown to include bus drivers and kitchen workers, barn managers and other equestrian staff, and a long line of primary, elementary and high school teachers.
“I’m absolutely in love with it,” said OVS Transportation Director Julie Cook, who was one the Mrs. Cooper’s earliest adult students, joining the class in the spring of 2014.
Ms. Cook has become quite advanced since joining the class, purchasing her own wheel and setting up a studio in her home. But she still attends the evening classes, saying there’s no end to what can be learned.
“It’s inspiring,” she said. “It gives me an outlet.”
Those who have taken the class always have a smile on their face when they talk about it, in part because of the wonderful company they get to keep. But they also smile because they know how lucky they are to be instructed by the driving force that is Mrs. Cooper, an OVS alumna who graduated from Lower in 1971 and Upper in 1974.
Since joining the teaching staff at the Upper Campus in 2001, she has developed curriculum that blends her love for ceramics with her extensive knowledge and experience as a professional ceramist.
Her love and passion for the craft translate to her classes.
On a recent evening, Mrs. Cooper was in high demand. Calls of “Jody, can you help me?” and “Jody, I’m not sure what to do next,” peppered the air to the point where Mrs. Cooper barely had a moment to breathe.
Despite the flurry of requests, Mrs. Cooper remained as patient as she was instructive.
She would help one of her students center a hunk of clay, then grab the hands of another to help shave excess clay from a fired pot.
When Moises Ferrel, a member of the Upper Campus kitchen staff, asked whether he had adequately raised and shaped the walls on a bowl he was throwing, Mrs. Cooper came back with one of her patented responses.
“Are you happy with it?” she asked him. “If you’re happy with it, that’s all that matters.”
That is what makes the ceramics she teaches to the staff so unique. It’s not just a class about skill, it is a time for the people taking it to explore and learn and just be. And she creates a space in which different sides of people come out.
That has definitely been true for history and journalism teacher Fred Alvarez, who has had the unique opportunity of stepping into the shoes of one his students.
Generally a confident and competent teacher in the eyes of his students, he joined the class last school year as a way of socializing more with his peers and stepping out of his comfort zone to learn something that in high school he was not very good at.
Mr. Alvarez said in those teenage years, he could not even get beyond centering a piece, much less throwing a mug or bowl. But under Mrs. Cooper’s tutelage, he has thrown dozens of pieces, although there are still evenings when the clay won’t cooperate and what he ends up with is a giant blob of mud at the center of his wheel.
On one of those evenings recently, in despair from throwing one disastrous piece of pottery after the next, Mr. Alvarez vowed to quit. Though he was only joking, the struggle and frustration he felt as a beginning ceramists were all too real, and they were met with Mrs. Cooper’s usual brand of encouragement.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, it takes practice,” she told him. “You can’t get any better unless you keep trying.”
Don’t get down on yourself. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t give up.
These are the real lessons Mrs. Cooper teaches, and the ones Mr. Alvarez and other staff members are grateful for.
“I knew she was a good teacher, but until I took this class, I had no idea just how good she was,” Mr. Alvarez said. “I don’t really like doing things I’m not good at, but Mrs. Cooper makes it ok to fail. She teaches us the same thing we try to teach our students, that sometimes our best lessons come not when we succeed, but how we respond when we fall short.”
Mrs. Cooper’s patience and instruction show through in the work her adult students are producing.
Many of the staff members who take the class now have their pieces out on proud display in their houses. This is one of the great things about art, ceramics in particular – there is a constant reminder of how skills improve and that no matter what job there is no end to creativity.
“It’s really cool,” said Spanish teacher Gretchen Stevens, who began taking the class around the start of this school year. “We had a dorm party last night and I brought out two of the things I made and used them for finger foods. It was very rewarding. It actually is an amazing thing to create something, and then actually be able to use it.”
In the end, it’s not just about the ceramics.
With the shift from authority figure to student, the staff and faculty members loosen up as they interact with their peers, many of whom they don’t see on a regular basis. Magically, in the ceramics studio, the tensions and usual constraints of the school day melt away,
“It’s just fun for us to just sit there while we work and get caught up on what’s going on in their [other staff’s] lives,” said Laurel Colborn, assistant head of school and dean of studies at the Upper Campus. “It’s pretty neat because we’re all so busy we don’t get a lot of time to connect, so it not only allows us the opportunity to show our creative side but it’s really this community too.”Share