Feats of clay

What’s the best part of a summer camp at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis?

If you ask the Keefe kids — who’ve been going to camp there for nearly a decade — the best part of camp actually occurs after the weeklong program ends.

The Bloomington siblings, ages 8, 11 and 18, all said their favorite part is returning to camp after their projects have been fired in the studio’s kilns. It’s when they get to collect their work and see other students’ projects, too.

“It makes me feel kind of proud of myself,” said Lydia Keefe, 11. 

Her favorite project so far is a jug shaped like a turtle that she made in a camp called Jugheads. 


More than bowls, vases

This summer, Northern Clay will offer more than 40 half- and full-day camps to introduce kids of all ages to a variety of clay techniques. 

Topics dreamed up by the center’s instructors are wildly diverse: I Scream, You Scream is dedicated to ice cream dishes and includes a trip to the Franklin Freeze ice cream shop. 

Perfect Pairs challenges students to create pairs of cups, bowls and plates. 

In Monsters and Minions, kids use sculpture skills to make monsters of any shape and size. (Of course, you can make vases if you’d like in It’s All About That Vase.)

Northern Clay, which boasts a gallery, studios for artists and classes for all ages in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, expects about 400 kids to take part in its camp programming this summer.

Some of this summer’s camp themes are built around popular movie and game franchises such as Minecraft to capture kids’ most pressing interests, said Dustin Yager, the center’s head of education programs.

The Keefes got their start at Northern Clay thanks to their great-aunt Sheila Keefe, who started giving trips to the camp as birthday and Christmas gifts. 

The retired teacher who lives in Washington, D.C., travels to Minnesota in the summer to work alongside them as a teacher’s aide in their classes.

“They have so much structure in their life,” she said. “To know the beauty of art is a gift.” 

Clay has the power to draw all sorts of kids into art, she said, even those who aren’t “artistically bent.”


All skill levels welcome

Northern Clay campers have access to the same equipment, materials and even some of the same instructors as adults who take classes there. 

This summer, camps will cater to students age 6 and older with a variety of skill sets. Introductory classes start with hand building and sculpture. More advanced classes move on to pottery wheels. 

Most classes are designed for beginners, but, Yager said, there’s room for experienced kids to use more advanced techniques. Instructors work one-on-one with students to make sure their ideas come to life. Classes include 10 to 12 kids with one teacher and at least one other assistant teacher, Yager said.

During a typical half-day camp, students work for the first hour and half and then take a break for snack, followed by another hour of work and clean-up time.

Northern Clay also partners with other art centers to offer full-day camps that expose students to several different types of media.

This year they’re offering a new all-day camp in partnership with the nearby Seward Community Co-op called Three Square Meals. At the clay center, students will work on projects designed for food and other crafts. At the co-op, they’ll learn about food and take cooking classes.

For confident campers who want a special challenge, Northern Clay always ends the summer with a class called I Can Do That Blindfolded in which students practice throwing pots at the wheel without their eyesight.

While students will work on a number of projects throughout a week of camp, by the end, they’ll take home only 10 or 12 pieces of their best work. 

All of the ceramics are food-safe, too, so they can be put to use. 

Bloomington dad Ben Keefe said he recently found a box of his kids’ projects while rearranging the basement. After dozens of classes, he said there’s not enough room in their house to display everything.

“There’s pots and artwork all over the house. That’s for sure,” he said. “We kind of put them away because we have so many.”


Sticking with clay

Northern Clay students reach a major milestone when they turn 9 and are able to take classes on the pottery wheel.

Sam Keefe, 8, said he’s especially excited for camp this summer because he’ll be old enough take his first wheel class.

“I thought it was really cool when I saw this one kid making a huge octopus on the wheel,” he said.

Sam said another highlight is when campers get to tour the artists’ studios and see what they’re working on.

Lydia, an animal lover who likes to replicate her favorite creatures in clay, loves getting to occasionally see the studio cat, Milo.

She’ll return to the wheel again this summer. Her goal is to learn to center her clay faster so she can begin forming her pots and other work more quickly. She said she hopes to stick with the camp until she’s too old. 

“It’s a really great experience to get ready for what you want to do in the future — and a really good way to let your imagination run free,” she said.