Ceramic Furniture Workshop, August 2002

This workshop was the most ambitious to date and so successful that it has become an ongoing program that will involve the original participants and others as they visit Aba House.

A traditional potter, Dora Mensah participated in the workshop... more about Dora

The artist in residence for this workshop was Barbara Allen.

See also the follow-up workshop: ceramic furniture in 2003

Read Aba's article: In Ghana, pottery is women's work

Barbara's report on the workshop

It is important for ceramists to understand that in Ghana there are no ceramic supply houses to buy clay, glaze or tools. The individual himself accomplishes all of this. This was the first challenge that Aba and I encountered. The clay that was promised had not yet arrived nor had the kiln in which to fire it. The workshop was scheduled to begin shortly and I was close to panic about not having clay or knowing where to get it. Aba said “No Problem” a common expression in Ghana. Rodney, her driver happened to stop by to tell us that he had seen some road construction where clay had been unearthed, so off we went to collect the spoils.

Can you imagine giving a workshop and having no idea of how many participants would show up? This is not an uncommon occurrence in Ghana but was my second challenge. However, Aba told me “No Problem” and by now I had learned to go with the Ghana flow.

Aba had spoken so much about Sammy Ansi, that I was beginning to think he was a figment of her imagination because he had not yet shown up. Sammy is a Ghanaian potter and teacher who would also be a co-facilitator for the clay workshop. Sammy lives quite a distance from ABA HOUSE in the Volta Region and I was getting more and more anxious to begin work with him. Aba said, No Problem, Sammy will show. I had no choice but to relax and go with the flow.

Barbara and Sammy

A few days before the workshop Sammy walked through the door and I felt an instant connection to this amazing artist/educator. And truly there was from then on to be no problem. Sammy immediately got to work showing me how to make tools of bamboo, wood, discarded wire and plastic cording that was found on the grounds. We then spent many hours planning the goals and direction of the workshop.

We began work with about 18 participants. Their backgrounds are diverse. There were teachers, artists, sculptors, professional potters, students and people developing clay bodies for industry. Everyone was very excited and serious about the work that was to begin.

We started with a group discussion of the need for clay furniture in Ghana.

Wood is becoming a scarce commodity and an alternative needs to be found. We decided it would be beneficial to make maquettes and then reconvene to discuss them individually. Then next day each participant presented their work and we discussed the problems that might occur producing these ideas to actual size and in production. Two pieces were chosen and created for ABA HOUSE.

One of the criteria of the work was that it had to remain intrinsically African in its philosophy. That is; All art is practical because it tells a story or teaches a lesson. This was the most valuable lesson for me because it broadened my definition of the word practical. This is an idea that will influence the way I teach art and art history. This experience gave me a permanent connection to my colleagues in Ghana and we are continuing our collaboration through letters and E-mails. My intent is to return next summer to continue work on this exciting experiment in clay.

-- Barbara J. Allen

Aba's comment

Before my involvement in CCC, Inc. I was a professional potter and teacher. I thought that I had left both behind, but August 2002 found me potting and teaching and, I must admit enjoying myself. It was inevitable that one of our workshops would involve clay. After all, the program takes place in a clay house so it wasn't much of a stretch. I was also inspired by traditional African methods of forming simple tables and sitting areas and sometimes beds from clay. It was my idea to concentrate on the design and construction of clay furniture and I didn't get much encouragement from other potters. When I began researching I realized that very few had ventured into this and I was beginning to wonder if there would be too many obstacles. I'm glad we went ahead... even though we encountered many challenges, I think we learned a lot and solved most of the problems. The main problem is to construct something that is durable enough to be functional.

Barbara Allen, a US sculptor and ceramist, and myself and about a dozen Ghanaians, mostly working potters, spent one day dialoguing. If nothing else had happened in the workshop, I would have called it a success. These were a group of people excited about their work and equally excited about sharing ideas. Not only were there cross cultural references between the Americans and Ghanaians, but between the students, professional and untrained potters in attendance.

Participants brought pictures of their own work and went through a short introduction.

After the first day of talk everyone was asked to design prototypes of furniture. In the afternoon Barbara held a critique where everyone explained their pieces and were given suggestions for continuing. Originally we were going to construct full size one of each persons work, but time didn't allow so I got to choose two pieces that were made full size and we divided into two groups to work on them.

The two day workshop was much too short and Barbara and one of the other potters spent the next few days finishing up the pieces. Everyone's main complaint was that the workshop was too short. It will be continued next year. Barbara, who wasn't even sure in the beginning that she wanted to go to Africa, will be back next year and we are hoping to include other "outsiders" to the mix.

-- Aba

Most Ghanaians have a nickname and delight in finding one for visitors. Barbara earned hers simply by making a clay pot.

Every activity, no matter how innocent, becomes a cultural lesson at Aba House. Barbara decided to use local materials to make a "memory" pot to take back to the States. She used a Japanese tea bowl technique and put a cultural twist on it by using local clay and found objects. She was seen wandering around the neighborhood collecting rusty nails, string, shells and other interesting discards.

She came back to the clay studio and started working by constructing the pot, poking holes in it, stringing on the nails, and as she was working people arrived for the ceramic workshop and started teasing her... something Ghanaians do so well. All the materials she used so innocently are used for juju, a very powerful African magic. The fact that she had a cowry shell band on her ankle just added to the merriment because cowry shells are a sure sign of juju.

So it was easy to name her "Juju Lady". Even before this, she was suspect because she brought a gift from her students in the USA. A clay bell with a metal ringer. When it was hung in the doorway of Aba House, there were knowing looks and a week later when she collected the ingredients and constructed the pot, there was proof positive. Although the accusations were all in fun, they led to late night discussions about magic and miracles. At 2 a.m. discussing the difference between God's miracles and the village man's magic makes for an interesting cultural exchange.

Participant comments

The workshop has been very educative, idea-sharing and very interesting. Such workshops should be held more regularly and topics such as refractories, white body and different types of glaze formulation (especially using local materials) and finally different types of kiln construction and their firing should be treated. The facilitators have done marvelously well, but I hope in the future the Press or TV could be invited to come for a coverage. This would be an exposure. In future, I think week days would be ideal (Thursday, Friday or even Saturday) to enable us to cover more and even fire.

The workshop was stimulating and exciting. The resource person (Barbara) highly stimulated participants and a lot of new ideas were shared. The brainstorming session was useful and relevant to the workshop. The workshop was well organized and the participants were well treated. Materials were ready and adequate. The timing was good, but Sunday should not be included in such important workshops.

My expectations were met and the highlighting of African design was good. Congratulations Aba. The vision of Cross Cultural Collaborative is highly commendable.

This workshop was very educative and should be continued maybe twice a year. We should be much delighted if this program could be sponsored. Other craftsmen or potters from different countries should also be involved in this creative workshop. I wish this workshop a successful future.

Looking at the rationale, the workshop has been effective and successful. There is the need for the supply of materials that could introduce much more power and energy to the ceramic furniture dream. I suggest one of us could be called to be an agent to this kind of business. Open a store and then CCC would supply these things.

I suggest that next time the course will be residential base especially to save time.

The most interesting thing about this workshop is the kind of exposure-meeting people with diverse ideas. In all I think it was a successful attempt, education achieved, meals satisfied and social contacts.

The workshop would have had more participants if there had been a form of funding. Most people did not turn up because of the workshop fees. The program should be extended to include sculptors, ceramicists and designers. The program was generally educative.


Barbara and I were concerned because people were not responding to the deadline we had set for registration, so we didn't know until the day of the workshop how many would be attending. There were about 12 which was fine, but it would have been much easier to prepare if we had known in advance. From my perspective the workshop was everything I could have wished for. Barbara was a great facilitator and the participants were fully involved. There was a lot of dialogue and exchange of ideas. Perhaps we should have cut the dialogue off a little sooner, but it's hard to interrupt such creative excitement.

The workshop definitely should have been more than two days, as we ran out of time and couldn't make as many full sized pieces of furniture as anticipated.

How to pay for the workshop was a problem. Clay, kiln firing, food for the participants, etc. had to be paid for and most of the payment came out of my pocket. Participants paid the equivalent of $1.87 a day to attend which didn't come anyplace near the actual cost of everything. But even that small fee kept many people from attending.

One solution is to have companies sponsor a participant. And of course, a grant would help...we're trying.

Many people wanted us to extend the workshop to a week and have us provide accommodations. It's a good goal to shoot for. But until that happens, we will continue to offer 2 and 3 day workshops that explore the construction of clay furniture.

Clay Furniture Slideshow

see also the follow-up workshop

ceramic furniture in 2003

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