Meet Commonwealth Faculty: Kyla Toomey, Ceramics and Sculpture Teacher

With pottery wheels whirring, sunshine streaming through the skylight, and poppy music playing, Commonwealth’s fifth-floor ceramics studio is a joyous makerspace, full of students—including many in the midst of a free period—busily working on projects not just in clay but a dizzying variety of materials. Of course, Ceramics and Sculpture teacher Kyla Toomey calls it “controlled chaos,” but the students who flock to the space (one-third of the school, as of this writing) would have it no other way. Keep reading to learn more about Ms. Toomey’s path to Commonwealth, how her students have shaped her curriculum, and why there’s an urgent need to talk about the role of art in society.  

Getting to Know You

What is bringing you joy right now? 

Like right right now? Working with my colleagues. They get so excited to help out with nerdy ceramics things. We just had some very similar-looking materials delivered without labels—lithium carbonate and titanium dioxide—and I asked our science department to help identify which was which. Our chemistry teachers did a flame test, because lithium will turn red. I also had a fun time with our biology teachers testing samples of clay reclaim water recently. It was alive!

What is your favorite book (or a book you’ve re-read)? 

I just started rereading a book called Chromophobia [by David Batchelor]. I love reading books about color, and it’s one of my favorites. The author talks about how color can be understood in different ways: you can work with color, and that physicality can exist as one thing, and then you can describe and write about that color in a way that creates an entirely different understanding of it. How we understand color—from a historical perspective, from a scientific perspective, from a creative perspective—is such a broad topic. It’s something I've been digging back into lately.

What are your favorite comfort foods? 

I love doughnuts, but it has to be a good doughnut. Yeast-raised, glazed, very simple, and not overly sweet.

What was your favorite class in high school? 

Surprisingly, Drawing and Painting. I actually took far more two-dimensional art classes in high school. I only came to ceramics in my senior year. As soon as I sat down at the wheel and started working with three-dimensional materials, I was sold, but there wasn't a lot of that in my high school. 

Describe Commonwealth students in three words or less.

Inquisitive, open, and silly. 

Life as a Commonwealth Teacher (and Beyond)

What led you to teaching and to Commonwealth in particular? 

Both of my parents are teachers, so I always saw teaching as a career path possibility. But, honestly, in the beginning, teaching was really about making money while still being connected to the arts, because making a living as a full-time artist turns out to be a deeply hard thing to do. I taught a lot of community art classes and things like that. I got my master’s in my mid-twenties so I could teach at colleges, and I’ve now taught at most of the schools in Boston at some point in my career. But the higher-ed adjunct system is also complicated. 

I knew a lot of artists who were happy with jobs in private institutions, so when the position at Commonwealth popped up, I had been thinking about something like it for a while. That the job was part time and I could still have a studio practice really spoke to me. Then I came here and saw this place, which felt so different and totally non-institutional. And I fell in love.

My big passion in life has always been helping other people create a relationship to art—not necessarily to become an artist but to develop tools and understandings about making things. And those tools can help everybody, whether they’re using art to destress or build tactile abilities or learn problem-solving skills. 

Can you talk more about how art and art education is perceived these days? 

The arts really do need to be defended right now. Art programs are being cut at state schools and bigger colleges all over the place, because they’re not as directly applicable to getting a job. But you also hear people in, for example, the medical field saying they don't know how to work with their hands. We need to have larger conversations about [the arts], because the shift towards machine learning—and away from working with our hands and problem-solving for ourselves—is going to create huge cultural problems. It already is. 

What courses do you teach, and how did you develop them?

So I teach Beginning and Advanced Ceramics. When I started, we had just one general Ceramics course, but that wasn't great for students who wanted to take multiple years of classes, because the emphasis would always be on teaching new people basic skills. So it became really important to me to have those different levels to help kids grow their skills over the years. I've built a four-year cycle of projects, so it doesn’t matter what class you’re in—you're always seeing something new and getting the full view of what the material is capable of. 

I also teach Sculpture, which was actually a class about making artists' books when I was hired. As I taught that first year, I noticed the kids were all essentially making sculptures, so we called it Secret Sculpture Club. But I realized it didn't have to be a secret! We could, in fact, just make it a class called Sculpture. And it became the most contemporary version of art-making that we do at Commonwealth, the place for kids to explore more conceptual ideas, use any medium, and think about how any material can be an art material. 

And I teach the Art of Materials, which is part of the Science and Art of Materials, a class that students have to co-enroll in. [The class is co-taught by chemistry teacher John Wolff.] This class was an outgrowth of students asking me questions and wanting more information than I, someone who is not trained in chemistry, didn’t always have the capacity to provide. (I know some things about the science behind the art we make but not everything, and I think it's important to admit when we don't know things!) The kids wanted to know about synthesizing pigments and making cyanotypes and developing solutions from scratch, and so those are some of the things we now do in the lab. We work to provide a holistic perspective of materials, building from the atomic level up.

Related: Explore Visual Arts at Commonwealth

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day at Commonwealth looks like a lot of things. I’m always introducing a new technique or starting a new project with someone. It’s a lot of making sure every student is on track and knows what they're doing. Then there are meetings with advisees and cleaning the studio whenever I have a second in between classes…. It's fast-paced, controlled chaos up here.

What do you do in your free time?

Mostly hanging out with my family: my three-year-old, Harry, and my lovely husband, Adam, who is the Director of Facilities and Information Systems here. He and I get to have lunch together, which is nice. He also answers my tech questions pretty fast… 

Before said three-year-old, I used to spend all my time in the studio; I do that in smaller bits now. But we have a studio at home, and sometimes Harry will join me to play with clay. We made spooky scary ceramic ghosts for Halloween not too long ago.  

What does success look like in your classes?

Success looks different for every student. No student is measured against another student; students are measured against themselves. And as long as they're building skills and learning to make aesthetic decisions for themselves—and be confident in those aesthetic decisions—they’re successful. That's one of the harder parts about making art: people often don't feel confident in their decision making, because it's so subjective. It’s like when I have the kids choose the music we listen to in the studio: people don't always want to admit what they like! So building that confidence is important to me.

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