ClayToGo Partner Spotlight: Hmong International Academy

What do you get when you take over 250 pre-kindergarten through fifth graders from Hmong International Academy and put them in a room with hundreds of pounds of clay? An absolutely magical experience! Long-tenured teaching artist Susan Obermeyer was at it again this past spring, taking NCC’s clay show on the road to populations that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to create in clay.

Hmong International Academy’s vision is to prepare culturally-competent students for success in a 21st century environment, while preserving and sharing the Hmong culture, while honoring all cultures, and preparing ambassadors for the future.  

It became clear early on, in our time in the classroom, that we were about to create hundreds of clay ambassadors. Nothing can match the joy of watching youth create in clay. (And this opinion is an informed one coming from the author of this particular article, a mom of two grown sons and an observer of hundreds of hours of creating in clay over a long career in the arts non-profit sector.)   Walking into a quiet classroom filled with third grade students kneeling whilst leaning as far forward as physically possible to watch Susan demonstrate the “scratch and attach” method was a sight to be seen. These kids were really into the lesson and extremely focused. Mere moments later the classroom exploded in a fever of pounding clay, coil rolling, and laughter. The project was self-portrait tiles. The makers were beside themselves, eager to map out the placement of eyeballs and mouths, querying each other as to the mutual intentions to add ears or hair or teeth.

A student at Hmong International Academy forming a slab.

Having not touched clay in longer than I’d like to admit, I found myself pulling up a chair to share space with four youngsters struggling over the application of their clay noses. Noses used to be my “thing,” so I begged permission to assist this captive audience of creators and shared my nose-composing knowledge. Later, I was invited to demonstrate the making of clay braids to be added to the tiles of students at the nearby table.  

The class hour flew by, and the tiles that were manufactured in that brief time were utterly amazing; like the kind of amazing that reminds you of the power of clay and the potential of the next generation of clay makers.  

When all was said and done, each youth participant created two objects: a self-portrait tile and hornbill bird sculpture (the school’s mascot). In addition to working with the youth, Susan visited the school after the completion of the residency as part of the family open house night, where she led a series of short, hands-on workshops with families who had the opportunity to create their own clay pots or sculpture.  

Now, our new friends will have a forever memory of their Northern Clay Center experience. And, hopefully, we’ll lure a few more young makers into the fabulous clay community!  

Hmong International Academy is so grateful for the wonderful workshops provided by NCC this past school year. We were one of many schools that experienced staffing challenges, and not being able to fill our art position left our art room quiet, empty, and sad. Luckily, through some innovative collaboration between our teams (and some much-appreciated grant dollars) we were able to secure a six-week workshop for students to create two projects: a functional object and an object that reflects who they are and their sense of self. The teaching artist, Ms. Susan, was engaging for our students and helped them express themselves through clay.  It was one of our featured student projects in our 2023 Student Showcase, which not only showcased student work but also held workshops for families to sculpt together with their child(ren).

Thank you NCC!

Kate McNulty, assistant principal  

If you are interested in setting up a clay experience for your child’s school or after-school program, connect with us at