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Michael Terra

Michael Terra

Arts Education Artist
  • Visual Arts and Crafts


    With a pastiche of experience ranging from biophysics to cooking, Michael Terra brings humor and strange insight to his art. Currently traveling through life as 'The Mud Poet', he uses original writing in combination with ceramic sculpture to develop and amplify the emotional impact of his work. The work may be as small as a perfect replica of a postcard (complete with stamp and cancellation, a 1/32nd of an inch thick), to multipart sculptures as tall as a teacher with moving parts and dangling bits. All of it has a component of storytelling to it. Instead of telling you his story, Michael would much rather remind you of one of your own stories or experiences by subtly recreating the beginning of a commonly held event or sensation or emotional context so that you generate your own story in response. This allows a work to evolve as the viewer's experience changes.

    Potential Residency Project

    Topic: Using personal expression as part of a larger collaborative process.
    Grade Level: 10–12

    Creating unique and personal sculptures, students will learn to transform verbal expression into three dimensional objects and compose them as collaborative public artwork.

    Collaborative Totems...
    Working as individuals, in classes, and also in collaboration with all of the people participating in this workshop, students will develop individual sculptures based on personal themes that, after firing, they will assemble into a permanent collaborative outdoor sculpture.

    I love teaching this workshop for a whole host of reasons...

    First, clay is a great medium that allows for a huge difference in skill sets to succeed equally. Clay allows a direct manual contact with the creation of the product (truly ‘hands on’). It allows the ‘verbals’ to use words, the ‘visuals’ to use forms and colors, and it allows for people with a limited experience with the medium to create something they can be proud of.

    Second, the transformation of words to sculpture seems to open a door for everyone. People distill a personal memory or event into words that then become a visual, three dimensional aspect of a huge sculpture. It is wonderful to watch.

    Third, I love the fact that when all of these individual identities are merged into a single collaborative sculpture, it offers another moment of transformation: instead of taking their work home with them, each student surrenders their part into the whole that remains with the school as they move on.

    The Week:
    Because of the medium and the length of time that the actual craft process takes, we have to do a little bit of ‘back and forth’ to achieve our ends.

    The week starts right away with the creation of the paper armatures that the sculptures will be built on. This is a relatively simple process of creating a ball of newsprint in a certain way and securing it with tape, but it moves us directly from the standard academic protocols into “doing” in a snap. While we are making these armatures, I’ll introduce the thematic nature of the design and development of the project.

    We’ll talk about the concepts of a personal narrative and how many voices, as they coalesce, create a story about community. We’ll collaboratively develop a short list of possible themes to choose from that are appropriate to the setting (academics, honor, athletics, school spirit, involvement, and achievement are all typical high school choices). With the short list, we will begin to talk about icons and symbols that might hold or amplify the meanings of each theme.

    Ultimately, over the course of the week, each student will sculpt two pieces: one that is purely form and one that embodies a sentence or phrase. As we are working on the ‘form’ sculpture, we’ll be actively talking about the verbal sculpture, and, by bouncing between the two – refining and developing as the drying clay allows – we’ll hone our expressions and stories on a personal level.

    The last day for each of the students will be the addition of color to the work they’ve done. Due to the need to do a single step firing process, we’ll use liquified clay (slip) with mason stains to add color to the sculpture. By using a limited palette of coordinated colors, we can assure the overall composition of the sculpture will look amazing. We can also allow each student to add as much or as little color as they want!

    I will not be there to complete this sculpture! We’ll load the kiln and get that started and then. I’ll be gone! It becomes the classes’ task to empty the kiln and choose a site for the sculpture and assemble it. This is extremely easy to do, but has to happen after the firing is complete.

    We are all storytellers. It is our preferred method of communication and teaching. I can provide you statistics about the dangers of thunderstorms and the number of fatalities, etc. It will have significantly less impact than if I tell you the story of Peter, who didn’t come in out of the storm and was struck by lightning and what happened to him after that. ‘Peter’ always becomes ‘us’ in these stories and we learn from them in this way. All of the most durable teaching tools in history are just a collection of stories.

    By creating this totem, woven with the stories of each student, the school, the classes and the students leave a powerful teaching tool for everyone that follows them... and it will be fun!

    Workshop Promotion:
    I will make myself available to the teacher and anyone else from the school or their support structure to help promote the workshop. I can provide images of work, short videos of other workshops done in other schools, and even radio and television interviews from previous projects. Whatever I can lend to the effort, I am delighted to assist.

    Residual Impact on the Teaching Environment:
    After I have left, there will be a residual effect of this process that I think you might enjoy.

    Your students will be looking at multiple meanings for words – honing their own word choices for more precise control over these layered implications. Your students will look beyond the page and see the three dimensional manifestations of language and storytelling in sculpture, dance and even government! They will get a very grounded and physical demonstration of how individual expressions work even better when they are gathered together into a community. They will learn that by giving up their personal possession of an object (the work they've created), they create something much grander that they own in a new way. And, possibly my favorite, they will learn that from the humblest of materials (newspaper, tape, and clay) they can manifest huge things!

    Connecting Content to Kentucky Standards:
    1.13 Students make sense of ideas and communicate ideas with the visual arts.

    2.23 Students analyze their own and others' artistic products and performances using accepted standards.

    2.25 In the products they make and the performances they present, students show that they understand how time, place, and society influence the arts and humanities such as languages, literature, and history.

    2.26 Through the arts and humanities, students recognize that although people are different, they share some common experiences and attitudes.

    1.3 Students make sense of the various things they observe.

    1.4 Students make sense of the various messages to which they listen.