Our Strategic Vision

Canned Heat, with a brief history of Ceramics at BFS

Again, my colleague, director of media services Andy Cohen, comes through with a nice find as he transfers his own VHS collection. BFS has a long history in ceramics education and this short film by BFS students is about the Japanese pottery technique, Raku, as taught by BFS ceramics teacher Ellen Kahan during the Minimester of Winter, 1999.

Raku: The Art of Fire from Brooklyn Friends School on Vimeo.

This video got me thinking about when and how our ceramics program began, especially since ceramics is not offered in most schools. The modern ceramics program at BFS began in earnest in the Fall of 1970, as briefly mentioned in an article about upcoming courses in the June, 1970 edition of The Life. In just one year, interest had grown substantially: not only were classes offered, but a pottery club had also been established as shown in the ceramics article, “Students Explore New Media” from the November 1971 edition of The Life. That second article indicates that BFS students built the kick-wheels and wedging table for our first ceramics studio, which was then located in a basement room in our former school building at 112 Schermerhorn. The ceramics studio made the 1973 move to Pearl Street and kept growing thanks to devoted faculty and students. The 3rd floor studio at 375 Pearl, in what is now the woodworking studio, was moved in the early 1980s to the much larger space it occupies today at the northern end of the 3rd floor. In 1991, BFS had one kiln, three electric wheels, the wedging table, and the two kick-wheels. Today, BFS has 3 digital kilns, 11 high-powered electric wheels, a slab roller, a pug mill for making clay, and even an extruder. The original wedging table has been maintained well over the years, and the original kick-wheels were donated to Mary McDowell Friends School only a few years ago. 
Lovely to learn that it was Mrs. Jessie Cooper Magagnini who began our modern ceramics program in 1970 and was our first ceramics teacher. The parent of three alumni, she was a tremendous BFS volunteer, a noted artist and ceramist who worked with the well-known studio, Greenwich House. Mrs. Magagnini, as recalled by her children,  had a “deep and long-term involvement with Greenwich House and leveraged that knowledge to move things along. She helped Friends select the pottery wheels and kiln. She arranged for the clay and glazes and all the tools necessary to not only throw pots but also do hand-building. Kids loved to go down to the basement [at 112 Schermerhorn], knead some clay and then work the kick wheel.” Our gratitude goes out to our ceramics teachers of the last 43 years for establishing and developing ceramics at BFS into the comprehensive program our students deeply enjoy today: Jessie Cooper Magagnini, Ilka Maidoff, Priscilla Neisch-Sloane, Sue Aaronson, and Ellen Kahan. 

I visited a ceramics class just yesterday and it was uplifting to see almost a dozen Middle School students working happily, confidently, and independently at the wheels, guided by the dynamic Ellen Kahan, our ceramics teacher of the last 22 years. Ceramics at BFS is an extremely important part of our Visual Arts curriculum for students in 5th through 12th grades. Lower Schoolers also use the studio for special projects, and BFS offers weekly ceramics classes for our Lower School and Horizons students in our After School program, as well as in our Summer Camp and Summer Arts programs.

The beautiful work produced in the BFS ceramics studio by its students is consistently fabulous year after year, and it ranges from sculptural pieces to complete sets of dinnerware. Come see for yourself at the All-School Art Show running May 21 to 23 – you’ll be amazed.