Clay Garden: Service-Learning and Participatory Art

by Adrienne Merrild

“Nothing is more the child of art than a garden.” – Sir Walter Scott

In understanding gardens as artistic works, art historian Mara Miller notes in her article “Gardens As Works of Art: The Problem of Uniqueness” that gardens possess many of the qualities of fine art, as we consider it today. [1] Gardens are incredibly unique in that they cannot be replicated, forged, or mass-produced; a person designs them with aesthetics in mind; and they encourage engagement with their environment. At the May Art Hop event, the Kalamazoo College student gallery in the Park Trades Center hosted a collaborative service-learning project entitled Clay Garden. Sarah Lindley’s Hand-Building Ceramics class and Amelia Katanski’s environmental literature class, A Seat in the Garden, created a cooperative space that engaged community members and challenged them to artistically respond to the atmosphere of a garden. Art-hop-goers were encouraged to grab an apron and some clay and get down and dirty, hand-building with clay to construct an art piece that evoked the feeling of a garden.

Clay Garden, Park Trades Center Gallery 209L, May 4, 2012, photograph by Aaron Geller

The community garden is an integral part of Katanski’s service-learning literature class where students have extracurricular involvement in Kalamazoo’s Trybal Revival garden, Growing Matters Garden Program, Douglas Community Garden, and Peace House Learning Community orchard on a weekly basis. [2] The students focus on the garden as an idea, place, and action at the personal and larger societal level and read literature related to these themes that are then applied to their actions and purpose within these gardens. Alternatively, Lindley’s ceramics class is a service-learning art class centered on providing art workshops in the community that go beyond the “arts and crafts” level. “It’s more than just teaching,” said student participant Taylor Stamm, “we want to make meaningful connections with these people.” [3] Rather than leading workshops where they instruct community members on how to make something, the goal is to pose a question that will give people a creative outlet where they can seize their own artistic agency. In collaboration, these two groups designed Clay Garden to be an inspiring community art project where participants could reflect on what a garden means to them and then express that through clay hand-building and fellowship. The members of both classes rotated around the space helping the attendants and stimulating dialogue more than facilitating the work composed for the participatory art piece.

As one approached the Kalamazoo College gallery space, some students were stationed outside ready to invite community members into the space and hand them cards with famous literary quotes related to gardening and gardens in general. These quotes were provided by the A Seat in the Garden class and were meant to transcend all areas of the space as inspiration for the garden-building. The first room of the gallery space is a room with blackboards covering all four walls that posed questions to the visitors such as: “Does a garden have to be made of organic things?”  “Is a garden an object, a space or place?” “What roles do growth and decay play in a garden?” Visitors were encouraged to respond to the refection questions with either textual or pictorial answers using the sidewalk chalk provided.

Clay Garden, Park Trades Center Gallery 209L, May 4, 2012, photograph by Aaron Geller

The meditative tone was continued in the next room of the space where the same literary quotes that were handed to the visitors at the entrance were blown up and hung on the walls, covering it like wallpaper. In this room there were two tables, one with clay for participants to use and another where books were provided by the literature class about the importance of gardens as mediators between nature and culture, faith and knowledge, and health and disease. The blown-up quotes on the walls trailed off and led the visitor into the final room where the actual clay garden was centered on the ground, surrounded by tables on which to build, a cleaning station, and many people who were just there to observe. The Hand-Building Ceramics class provided around 2,000 pounds of clay as well as a variety of carving tools, water, and slip for participants to use. The philosophical dialogue was important within the garden and the students and their leaders stimulated conversations surrounding inspiration for and placement of the sculptures that were purposely not laid in rows. The final product was a very full “garden,” covered in hundreds of unique sculptures of trees, bird nests, flowers, castles, and a number of other abstract objects.

The heavy community participation and ultimate success of the clay garden recollects Mara Miller’s article, “Gardens As Works of Art: The Problem of Uniqueness” published in the British Journal of Aesthetics, in which Miller investigates the fall from grace that gardens have experienced in the past three-hundred years. [4] She notes that in the eighteenth century, gardens were considered to be equal to poetry and painting in artistic status. Miller attributes their current lack of artistic recognition to their absence of a distinct final form and, specifically, a final form that can be directly related to human agency. In Clay Garden, however, both of these criteria were aptly met and relished. At the end of the night when Art Hop was over, Taylor Stamm remarked that there was hesitation on the part of the organizers to take down the project: “No one wanted to destroy everyone’s creations.” [5]



[1] Mara Miller, “Gardens As Works of Art: The Problem of Uniqueness,” British Journal of Aesthetics 26 (1986): 252-256.

[2] Douglas Community Garden is located at 1000 West Patterson, Kalamazoo. For more on Peace House, see: Rebecca Bakken, “Kalamazoo’s Peace House learning community gets an orchard |,” Michigan Local News, Breaking News, Sports & Weather –, (accessed May 17, 2012).

[3] Taylor Stamm, Interview by author, Personal interview, Kalamazoo College, May 16, 2012.

[4] Miller, op. cit.

[5] Stamm, op.cit.


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