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Anna G. Larson, Published October 24 2012

Earthen art: Teens sculpt using local clay

GLYNDON, MINN. - Abby Dahl, of Felton, and Morgan Okke, of Hawley, dig deep for their art form.

The two homeschooled, 14-year-old friends have been sculpting clay together since they were about 10 years old. This summer they even moved on to harvesting their own clay.

“It’s awesome to use the talent God has given us,” said Abby. “I really love working with my hands.”

The girls have been taking classes from Glyndon ceramist Ren Fugelstad. He has worked with clay since he was 26 years old, and he’s been teaching for 30 years. He’s taught children as young as 5 to make pinch pots (bowls made by pinching clay with the fingers).

“Some catch on quicker than others,” he said. “But anyone can enjoy working with clay. It has infinite possibilities.”

Abby liked working with clay after her first class.

“The exposure really hooked her,” said Chanyce Dahl, Abby’s mother. “Abby is very detail-oriented, and I think she’s drawn to pottery because it’s very methodical.”

Morgan’s mother, Melody Okke, said she sees her daughter enjoying a hobby that she can advance with at her own pace.

“I’ve always encouraged my kids to have a hobby or talent that can be lifelong,” she said.

Typically, the girls take two-hour classes twice a month with Fugelstad, and they This summer, Abby, and Morgan furthered their clay studies and learned how to harvest and process native clay. The duo tested clay they found in multiple areas of the Red River Valley to find the strongest, most workable clay.

“It wasn’t as much work as I thought it’d be,” Morgan said.

Processing the clay takes about a week. Ren explained the process: Once harvested, the clay dries and is pounded into smaller chunks with a hammer. After the small chunks further dry, they bathe in a tub of water where a mixer whips the clay into slurry, a water mixture. To eliminate rocks and twigs, the slurry slides through a screen and into a plaster dry vat. The vat pulls moisture out of the clay.

While Ren and his students don’t harvest clay for every project, he felt it was valuable to introduce the girls to the local resource.

“All over the Valley, you can dig down a couple of feet and find clay – beautiful clay,” he said.

Abby and Morgan demonstrated the process and won grand champion ribbons at the Clay County Fair and blue ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair last summer.

While Morgan and Abby make sculpting clay look effortless, they said it’s a learned art form that takes practice. They’ve had their share of thick-bottomed, not-so-pretty pieces that have made them consider quitting the craft.

“The finished products keep us going,” Abby said.

The girls’ proud mothers said they use their daughter’s bowls and serving dishes when they entertain.

“We wish we could do this!” Melody said.

As for next summer’s 4-H Club and county fairs, Ren said he has Abby and Morgan’s potentially award-winning project figured out, but he’s “not about to let the cat out of the bag.”