A senior’s work in social engagement during a period of social distancing.
By Mary Brothers '22
When the pandemic upended lives and made creating meaningful, community-engaging art all the more difficult, Ella Simon ’21 didn’t give up on it; she got more creative.
In the fall of 2020, Simon proposed and built a cob oven, an outdoor wood-fired oven, in the Ceramics outdoor facilities as part of the Visual and Performing Arts building on campus.
“When the pandemic first started, the only safe way to gather with family and friends seemed to be eating together outside,” said Simon. “When I got back to school, I was thinking ‘what are ways to keep doing that?’”
So Simon turned to her love of ceramics for inspiration.
“For me at Bennington, ceramics have always been my point of entry. It’s always felt very communal to me. The ceramics studio here is a thriving community on campus,” said Simon.
Simon attributes the sense of camaraderie to the shared studio spaces.
“All of the processes are communal here. We mix clay in a shared space, we fire together, we are seeing each other's work all the time. I think it's very special,” said Simon.
“Last year, due to the pandemic, it felt really hopeless. We didn't have a way to connect outside of our working hours. I thought, ‘Okay, what's a way I can bring people together safely?” said Simon.
Simon was brainstorming food-related projects when she got the idea to build a cob oven.
“I presented this idea to make a cob oven because it seemed like something that could be used outside and already fit into the spirit of the space, even though it wasn't there yet,” said Simon.
Simon wrote a tutorial proposal to build the oven with the help of faculty member Yoko Inoue, and together they established a project timeline.
“In conjunction with projects Ella was pursuing in my course The Culinary Triangle and Ceramic Pot, her initiative was to enhance the spirit of community building and social bonding by creating a gathering space where the cob oven could become a focal point,” said Inoue. “Ella was admirably a great leader and attracted a broad range of collaborators from the campus community for the oven’s construction.”
When it came time to source materials, Simon decided to look first to some underutilized resources.
“I started with Buildings and Grounds and asked if they had any ideas for materials. They had just taken apart the boiler of the old wood chipper last year, and they had all these old bricks. All the materials were sourced from reclaimed material, like old masonry work that they've done on campus,” said Simon.
Because the Ceramics / Visual Arts Discipline considers this oven as an important teaching facility for understanding firing and heat retention, it is not open to the general public for use. However, student projects are welcomed with Ceramics faculty and technical instructor's oversight. And Ceramics students and their peer-community beyond VAPA have made great use of it.
“We’ve had several fun community pizza nights, where I would just put out the word to friends, and it would spread and people would show up and bring toppings,” said Simon. “The oven has also been used a lot in conjunction with [faculty member] Yoko Inoue's classes, such as The Culinary Triangle and Ceramic Pot, Geographies of Food: De-industrializing, Decolonizing and Re-indigenizing, Socially Engaged Art Seminar: Critical Kitchen Pedagogy, and Make Kitchen Communal Practicum. Students in these classes learn how to build a fire in the cob oven and cook by transferring coals from the pit.”
Simon, who studies Ceramics and Environmental Studies, didn’t come into Bennington knowing she wanted to pursue Ceramics.
“Luckily I was placed in Intro to Handbuilding, which completely changed and influenced my whole Plan here. The class had elements that made art so natural: you touch mud and you're like, okay, this makes sense,” said Simon.
Though Simon is graduating at the end of this fall term, she has left a special gift behind to the Bennington community: a series of community looms in different public spaces in the Bennington area, including North Bennington, downtown Bennington, the Vermont Arts Exchange, and the College campus. People are encouraged to add anything and everything to the looms in order to create a communal weaving.
“I knew I wanted to do something community arts based for my senior work,” said Simon. “The whole project is not about the weavings that are coming out of the looms; it's about the connections that people are making with each other.”
“I think COVID-19 sent me on a track of wanting to find creative ways to engage people with each other and to use art as that tool, especially in a time when it's harder to connect because of social distancing,” said Simon.
When the Town of Bennington’s Community Engagement Office learned of the cob oven on campus, Community Development Director Shannon Barsotti came to see the College’s oven and expressed interest in building another one in the town’s community garden. In order to aid them, and to share knowledge with those interested in building a similar oven, Simon created a zine that shows how to build a cob oven—and even included pizza recipes.
As she reflects on the end of her time here at Bennington, Simon encourages other students to make the most of the myriad of resources available to them.
“At Bennington, I feel like everything is possible. You just have to push for it and reach out to everybody because the school is not just the faculty and the students: the school is the faculty, the students, the staff, and the greater community,” said Simon. “We have so many resources here that you may not see right off the bat. So many people have helped with all the projects that I've done here; it's just amazing. I couldn't do all the things that I've done here without all those people.”