Lydia Palma, foreground, and Abby Reeder get ready to decorate their ceramic cookie plates at a holiday workshop at the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts in Plattsburgh.
PLATTSBURGH — They rolled up their sleeves, rolled out the clay, shaped it and colored it with all of the reds, greens and whites of Christmas.
Ten young artists, 5 to 8 years of age, crowded around a rectangular table in the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts, busily putting the final touches on their ceramic cookie plates.
There were stars, angels, Christmas trees and Santa Claus—flanked by a trio of “ho-ho-hos”— all adorning the handmade crumb catchers.
“The plates have to dry for three to four days before they can be fired,” said Shannon Piche-Smith, the instructor of the sold-out workshop.
Clay will spatter if it is not completely dry, making a mess in the kiln and ruining the piece. When they are ready, the plates will be placed under a bisque fire, after which a clear glaze is applied, giving the finished product a bright, shiny coating.
After one more firing the plates will be ready to go home, where a glass of milk will undoubtedly complement their Christmas Eve presentations.
But, more importantly, the finished products will be colorful, glimmering representations of each artist’s creativity.
Piche-Smith is an instructor in the center’s clay studio and teaches workshops at the NCCCA.
She will be teaching some of the upcoming holiday workshops, too, which take place every weekend until Christmas and will include how to make clay ornaments, personalized calendars, unique jewelry and self portraits.
“In an art class, kids are encouraged to be creative, they’re encouraged to use their imaginations and explore mediums,” Piche-Smith said. “There is freedom there because there are really no wrong answers.”
Piche-Smith used to teach art for the Beekmantown Central School District, but was laid off due to budget cuts last spring.
She has a passion for art and is enthusiastic about teaching it again.
“This is a good supplement for classes being cut,” Piche-Smith said. “Today we had an entire time slot for ten students. A place like this can encourage kids. It’s another way to expose children to the creative process.”
The holiday workshops at the NCCCA aren’t the standard holiday craft fare—there are no macaroni and glitter encrusted paper plates, there is not a single construction-paper snowflake—they instead provide an introduction into a variety of artistic techniques and mediums.
“The people that work in this room are highly qualified people,” Piche-Smith said. “It’s a great resource, and all the materials and firing are included.”
One of those highly qualified people is Jackie Sabourin, who said that art is important in society and in people’s lives because it can offer reflection and be a source of joy when things become difficult.
Sabourin added that no one should be afraid to try making art, and that anyone can have a meaningful relationship with art, regardless of skill level.
“It’s like walking down the street and seeing a beautiful tree,” Sabourin said. “You don’t have to be a great artisan to appreciate that.”
Sabourin is a volunteer arts and education coordinator for the center, a position that includes lending her artistic know-how to workshops like the recent one on making ceramic cookie plates.
Sabourin has been with the NCCCA since its inception—she and a small group of local artists helped open it in 2000.
“I decided that when I retired I wanted to promote arts and education in the area,” Sabourin said. “Nobody had art classes here, so I decided to write some grants to get an art center.”
The center is constantly evolving, and a recent consolidation of its staff, a reduction of nine permanent staff members to four, was made to help increase efficiency and better serve the community.
Shawna Armstrong is one of the center’s newest additions, having assumed the role of Gallery and Graphics Coordinator in September.
She said big things are happening at the NCCCA, starting with a members exhibition opening Friday, Dec. 7 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Anyone who is a member of the NCCCA can submit work, which will be on display through Jan. 12.
The exhibition will also mark the first time the public can set foot on the gallery’s new floor, which will be a dark woodgrain replacing the previous carpet.
The small gift store is also being transformed into a library and will be used as an artist’s market four times a year.
Armstrong added that the center has been making a concerted effort to get the word out about upcoming events sooner, which will give people more time to work those things into their schedules.
She is optimistic that the changes will result in an increased interest in the NCCCA, and that more exhibits and workshops will be offered in the months to come.
The center is important for the community, and especially important for the children, she said.
“This is a place for them to meet other kids; it’s a social place,” Armstrong said. “And anything they can do to build something with their hands is beneficial.”
The hands-on approach is something Armstrong said can carry over into their future endeavors.
And as she stood by, watching the children’s little hands as they eagerly created snow-globe worthy scenes out of the clay cut-outs, the smile that stretched across her lips said it all.
“This gets their imaginations going,” Armstrong said. “You need to be creative in any field you go into, and this is where that starts.”
The next two holiday workshops will be held Saturday, Dec. 8. Create a Personalized Calendar will run from 10:30am – 12:30pm and is for ages 7-12. Children under 7 can participate with an adult.
Kids’ Clay Ornaments will run from 2:30 – 3:30 p.m. for ages 5 – 7 and 4 – 5 p.m. for ages 8 – 13.
The workshops cost $25 for non-members and $20 for members, with all materials included.
Second Sunday Family Arts will make holiday ornaments Sunday, Dec. 9 from 1 – 3 p.m. The cost is $5 per child or $12 for a family of 3 or more. All materials are included.
For more information, visit www.plattsburgharts.org.