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Hands in Clay, Hands in Play: Lark Orbe ’26 at the M.C. Richards Program with Free Columbia in Upstate New York

The M.C. Richards’ program is a 1-year, project-based, hands-on art program in upstate New York for young people age 18-35 at a school called Free Columbia ( I joined in the third year of the program in Fall 2022. We started in a circle. There were probably about 20 or 30 of us including the 5 new students, the teachers, past students, and local community members. This was the first year that all of the new students lived together in the house that sits right next to the studio. Behind the studio is the new wood fired kiln which was built by the students from the previous year. This was the first year there would be such a focus in on ceramics. 

Our schedule was as follows:

9AM to 9:50AM  Monday through Thursday THROUGHOUT THE YEAR – MORNING CLASS: 

Discuss readings on M.C. Richards’ book “Centering”, reflect on how we experience color, light, consciousness, and dreams, and learn about ceramic glaze chemistry.

10AM to 12PM Monday through Thursday – CERAMICS:


We started by looking through books of Japanese ceramics and took inspiration from our environment to draw a 9-square; 9 different designs for pieces we could make. We started, right of the bat, by making forms with intention, striving to make what we drew and adapting from there.


We positioned six wheels to face inward toward each other with wood platforms around each wheel to hold our pieces. We did a ritual of guided meditation together for 10 minutes as we sat before our wheels before starting each day.


We measured and cut cardboard, covered it with canvas and plaster, we covered it in oil and put plaster/canvas strips around the inner mold to make the outer mold. We then made a large slab of clay, pressed it in and cut it to fit the mold, fused the two sides together and let it dry before taking the mold off. Some of this process is shown in the images below.






We did all the parts of the process:

Mixing clay, reclaiming and wedging clay, cutting firewood, preparing for a kiln firing x3 (mixing cobb and wadding, loading the kiln, scheduling, mixing glazes glazing pots…)


We had a weekly check in with Laura summer, the director of Free Columbia. We talked about our life stories and we etched designs into pieces of rubber to make stamps, representing vignettes of our life journeys. 


2:30PM to 4:30PM Tuesdays and Thursdays – AFTERNOON ROTATIONAL ART/NATURE CLASS:

FALL AFTERNOONS: Impressionism/mindful drawing. We started with drawing black fabric against a white wall. We were instructed to squint our eyes to draw the shadows and to draw all the spaces at once, not just one part of it. We then drew each other wearing a big coat with a light set-up to create drama and constrast with shadows. Proceeding this, we were invited to go outside and look at the spot we wanted to draw for 20 minutes. The assingment was to be present in experiencing being there before we even touched the paper with the charcoal. 



We worked in the garden at the Free Columbia and helped plant flowers by the reservoir in partnership with the local library. We went foraging for dandelion heads, ramps, and stinging nettle, made a fire by a stream and sautéed the wild greens in tallow and it was delicioso!



We did a theater workshop based around storytelling with a local community member named John McManus. We worked with poetry and movement and voice exercises. We told stories we chose and enacted poems by the poet, Kabir. I loved this return to ensemble-based theater practice that I grew up with. 


We created an experimental and explorative interdisciplinary performance involving a dance between live coral music and choreographed moving colors and light. We became “luminauts” who rode “light-horses”, we worked with the choir, and we played with eurythmy*. We performed “Rainbows by Invention” at LIghtforms Art Center in Hudson, NY for two nights in a row.


*eurythmy: a movement and poetry form based in anthroposophy**

**anthroposophy: a spiritual philosphy based in consciousness of humanity much based on the works of Rudolf Steiner




We had an exhibition at Lightforms Art Center. It was our first time immersing ourselves in ceramics and we got the opportunity to show our pieces at an art center 3 months in! 


Our second show in March, at a new local art gallery in Philmont, NY called The Philmont Studio. 


We wrapped up the year with a third kiln firing and an exhibition, this time in the little pocket park on the Main Street, in Philmont. 


We went to NCECA (, A ceramics conference in which we got the opportunity to learn about the wider world of ceramics, participate in art projects, workshops, dialogues, attend presentations, and connect with ceramic artists from all over! It was a really wonderful introduction to this art world. There was a lot of awesome work being done there centering Black and Brown and queer ceramic artists. One talk was about clay commoning and the shift from clay programs from BFA university degrees to community clay centers. There were talks about the intersections of clay and marginalized identities like ceramic artists with disability and a forum of Black ceramic artists. There was a beautiful presentation called “Clay Holds Water, Water Holds Memory” ( In their own words paraphrased, this is a collection of work by Black women and non-binary ceramic artists, centering those who have been historically excluded, and effectively recognizing empowering the artistry of Black ceramicists who have always been here. 


We ended in circle. We each made an altar of our work and shared it with each other, our parents, and community members. Our teachers shared highlights of our year and we all told stories of our times together. Each person who was there recieved a pot. One at a time, we ceremoniously smashed the pot as a practice of honoring the process of letting go and beginning anew, creating again. With flower crowns, photos, hugs, diplomas, wood-fired pizza and wood-fired ceramics, we wrapped up our year of experimental communal art making.


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