Field of figures captivates kids

Early Learning Center reworks clay masterpiece

by Kit Nagamura

Last November, when students at the Early Learning Center of the American School in Japan went off to view an installation titled “Asian Field” by the renowned sculptor Antony Gormley, probably no one guessed just how big an impact the experience would have.

Set up in the neighboring Roppongi High School’s gym, Gormley’s work featured a basketball court jam-packed with 156,000 little clay people — roughly the population of Minato Ward in Tokyo — each with a simple, but somehow charming face. The children were entranced and went back to the see the show six times before they decided they simply had to make their own field, a “Children’s Field.”

Educational value

Most instructors, when presented with the idea of helping their students produce 10,000 little clay people would have developed, um, clay feet. Luckily, the ASIJ kids were in the care of teachers who understood the educational value of observing art, listened when the children suggested they could do something similar, and nurtured their impulse to join in the creative spirit. The sheer logistics of the project, however, have proved daunting.

When Gormley put together “Asian Field” in Guangzhou, China, he had the help of several hundred locals whom he relied on to prepare the clay and sculpt for six hours a day, five days straight. Gormley has sown other fields as well, including “Field for the British Isles,” “Swedish Field” and “A Field of 20,000 Terracotta Figures” — each time helped by people from the areas in which they were presented. All the figures in these projects are fairly crude, resembling primitive haniwa (burial-mound figurines), yet collectively they exert a powerful influence — a sort of visual lesson in elementary politics.

Part of the impact of the display stems from the knowledge that no matter how similar the little people all appear, each sculpture is in fact subtly unique. In “Children’s Field,” a much broader range of creativity will plow a new furrow in the project.

Production guidelines at each field require only that the sculptures stand, that they are no taller than the sculptor’s hand — and that they have two deep-set eyes. The “Children’s Field” installation, which carries Gormley’s “blessing,” must adhere to the same ground rules.

But Gormley also insists that, so long as those three rules are adhered to, all sculptures submitted must be included in the final show. The British artist’s figures were fairly uniform, but “Children’s Field” contributors have found myriad ways to break his mold. So, within those three simple parameters, the kids have come up with some mighty interesting clay permutations of “people.” There are lion people, people with eyes the size of their torso, people who resemble fishheads, and one person who is all nose. Somehow this fun — and a lot of the clay, too — rubs off on parents who come along to join the project.

Global project

Tirelessly enthusiastic teachers and natural-born project coordinators Courtney Singer, Mayuka Suzuki, Tammy Woolley and Chikako Sassa of ASIJ have been making sure the clay gets into good hands. They have rallied support from Johnny Walker at A.R.T. (Art Residency Tokyo) Gallery, the British Council, the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the Mori Art Museum and Mori Building to bring in four tons of clay from Gifu Prefecture. The raw material is then processed and purified by a vendor in Tokyo, and arrives in huge plastic sacks at the Early Learning Center.

From there begins what Gormely calls “a global project in which the earth of a particular region is given form by a group of local people of all ages. It is made of clay, energized by fire, sensitized by touch and made conscious by being given eyes.”

Pedagogically speaking, clay work is an introduction to the world of 3-D conceptualization and elementary physics, and can help hone sensory motor skills. Montessori and Steiner schools, among others, still include clay modeling as an integral aspect of their early education. On a lay level, there is simply something wonderful about squishing a lump of fresh clay — it’s mud-pie magic — as you meditate on the fact that your creation will stand among 9,999 others.

Mutually supportive

“The way we approach the project,” Singer explains, “is with an emphasis on the collective aspect of the exhibition. Each child has to create something, and then give up individual ownership of it.” Singer has found that children, freed of the need to defend their individual work, or compare it quantitatively with others, are more generous and mutually supportive.

As a member of the press, I was allowed to participate in the project. For the record, my figure flopped over a few times before I could stabilize it, my son’s sported an oversize handlebar mustache, and my friend’s work looked like a shoehorn with eyes. We were blissfully unconcerned, and gave up our offerings with the happy thought that they would disappear in the crowd, and yet be part of it.

Kids at ASIJ and neighborhood schools, parents, visitors and even co-producer Johnny Walker have contributed to a total of nearly 6,000 little people so far.

Where do they get stored before firing? “They ride the bus out to the Chofu campus,” Singer says, adding coyly, “The little people live very full lives.”

Destined to be fired in gas kilns (if funding is forthcoming), the “Children’s Field” little people will make their private debut at the Early Learning Center in Roppongi. Then, in September, they will go professional and public at the A.R.T. gallery in Ebisu. After that, who knows how far afield their fame will take them?