The power in a 25-pound bag of Clay

Maria found her 25-pound bag of clay but getting to it was not a straight line. It was a journey that taught me much about the kind of support she needs to find her way at the University of Utah.

On the second day of classes this semester I asked Maria how her classes were going. To my total shock she said: “I don’t like my Art Class.”

Art forms the center of Maria’s identity. She spent her high school years volunteering with the youth group of the Episcopal Church on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah, finding projects that little kids would like to do. Due to her years of devotion to this community service, the Church awarded her a scholarship that is making all the difference in her ability to attend the university. When I needed a condolence card for a university administrator who had lost his father, it was Maria who drew a card with a simple, stunning dream catcher and feather on the inside to convey her condolences.

Maria displaying the new Logo she designed with the young students in the “Art Empowers” program at the Episcopal Church on the reservation

“You don’t like it?” I responded sadly.

“No. It is all on the computer.”

I asked those predictable follow up questions like: “Have you ever taken a digital art class?” As I inquired she began shutting down. He eyes focused straight on me over her mask and a piercing look of despair overcame her. “Okay, let’s email the professor and see what he suggests.”

She did. And he responded quickly. He told her that because this was a video class, perhaps it was not the best one to start with. He suggested she try 2D art, so we took a look at that. She found and class and enrolled. She jumped on Canvas and get started with the first assignment. Maria and I watched the 5-minute video the professor had created to explain the first assignment. Each student was to copy 20 digital illustrations in Adobe Illustrator. In the video he used the terms “scope”, “range” and “scale” with no explanation. When the video finished I looked at Maria and she was frozen.

“Don’t worry, I could not watch that and do the assignment either,” I told her. This was mostly true, but a bit of an exaggeration. I recognized the fact he used terms that she had never heard. I knew them. I was just trying to quickly find a way of telling her, “there are way too many assumptions being made here.” I began to presume that the other students in the course had taken a digital art course in high school, perhaps many times over. She had only ever put pen to paper. Sitting side by side on the couch in her apartment we hunted for another art class. Through the process I realized that there are eight fundamental courses for art majors. None were labeled: “Painting 101” or “Fundamentals of Drawing.” They all have clever names like: “Studio Art Foundation: Matrix,” “Studio Art Foundation: illusion” and “Studio Art Mapping”. Translated, these courses are 2D Digital Art, Painting, and Drawing, respectfully.

Because we could not tell from the titles what the courses were exactly about, we clicked on every course description and read through each one. As luck would have it the last one – Studio Art Fundamentals: Touch – was the jackpot!. It’s ceramics. Its clay!

“Have you ever taken a ceramics class before?” I asked.


Trying to stay calm, I asked her to click on the class and see if it had any “seats” left. It did so she quickly dropped the “Matrix” course and grabbed the seat in the “Touch” course. Success!

Well…sort of. She emailed the professor who got right back and welcomed her to the class. She said that Maria needed to buy a bag of clay and explained how to do it. I then bid Maria farewell for the weekend.

Introductory Art classes at the U are structured in 3 hours blocks on Tuesdays and Thursdays. At this point Maria had missed a week of class-six hours total. This is equivalent to two weeks of an average college course.

The following Tuesday afternoon I asked Maria: “How was art?”

“Oh…I didn’t go.” she replied. “I overslept.”

Silence. Disappointment. Tinges of anger engulfed me, but I stuffed it all somewhere. “How about we meet tomorrow on campus and figure out how to buy your clay?” I replied.

We did just that. We met the next day found the building housing the cashier who took her $20 and gave her a receipt. We walked across campus to the Art building and wandered the exposed concrete hallways looking for the clay. We ended up in the Dean’s office where a welcoming person escorted us to the messy, fun studio wing where we spotted a person who looked like a professor. His class was scurrying around, about to begin. I stepped forward, a bit worried I was going to overstep my role, but unable resist throwing my middle-aged, white privilege at this problem. I introduced Maria and asked if he could help her acquire her clay. Perking right up and focusing on her, he took her to a cage filled with blocks of clay, marked the receipt she had in her hand, and directed her to grab some clay.

Eventhough we interrupted his class this professor stopped and helped Maria. Sometimes the patience and grace of one educator can be a crucial stepping stone to a student persisting.

Maria and I then walked to my truck and put the clay in the back. We then walked across campus using a timer on my iphone to see how long it would take her to get from the bus stop to the art building. On the walk back we calculated which bus she would need to take in order to get to class on time.

During the ride home Maria piped up: “If I take the earlier bus I could maybe talk to the professor before the class.”

I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I batted them away. . She was back in the game! She was now ready for her first college art class.

When she “slept in” the day before I knew that that is sort of, but not really what had happened. Emotionally, she was miles away from being able to attend that class! But now, after a dry run, after having acquired the clay, after having walked the hallways and been greeted warmly by everyone she met, she was ready.

Or so I hoped. I texted her the next day an hour after the completion of the class and asked her: “On a scale of one to ten, how was art?”

“Ten” she replied, “It was good.”

The smile of a college kid on the hunt for her academic home.

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