The Bible and Christmas hymns tell little about the shelter where Baby Jesus was born. We sing about the donkey, manger, stable, cattle and inn. I asked my friend Amal, a Christian from Kuwait, "What material would have been used to make a barn in the desert for Mary and Joseph - when there was no room for them at the inn?" Her answer was, "Only sand!"
I’d made various Bethlehem "barns" out of clay I dug near Columbia; some resembled wooden planks, some large stones, some of my barns were shaped like caves, other clay barns resembled logs. Amal smiled and repeated, "Only sand."
My 1886 encyclopedia says, "... the monks show" visitors "a cave in which Jesus is said to have been born." Highway bulldozers cleaned the sod and dirt off of this clay in several locations many years ago when they extended East Broadway - now Route WW.
Recently when we tore off another calendar page and set our clocks back, some of us heaved a sigh and said, "Here comes Christmas!" Although we celebrate this holiday in many different ways, there’s a special charm about the account of a young pregnant girl riding a donkey for miles and delivering the son of God in a dirty old cattle shelter - without lights, running water, doctor or even a woman to hold her hand! I wanted to represent this event in clay dug on our land.
I recalled taking my students in Recreational Leadership class to that bed of clay and having each one dig a teacupful of clay for her craft project. They made some interesting things, but I didn’t have the know-how or the equipment to fire their work. When I retired, I was eager to learn how to fire stoneware clay I dug near my home. I finally found instructions: "Dig the clay, dry it, crush it, dissolve it in a lot of water, put it through a fine sieve, let it set a day or two ..." I could do all of that. "Siphon off as much water as possible and air-dry the remaining clay until you can work with it without having it stick to your hands. Knead your clay as you would knead bread. Put it into air tight bags or buckets to ripen for a few weeks." That white clay, deposited when ocean water covered this part of Missouri, is called "Cheltenham." It can survive very high temperatures and is widely used for making fire bricks.
From 1972 until recently I dug clay and made "folk" art pieces called "History In Three Dimensions." My favorite group was the Nativity.
Other figures I made were called "The Little People of Boone’s Lick Trail" because pioneers used this route after 1822, bringing their wagons down our hill, across north fork of Grindstone Creek and up steep "hospital hill" - called "Water Street" because of springs. That pleased both the merchants and the weary travelers headed farther west. See a sculpture of this in Boone Hospital’s main entrance lobby.
It honors the past to shape clay into miniatures named for Boone County residents, including: "Bess (Estes) dips drinking water out of her spring," "Joe (Haseman, Sr.) robs a bee hive," "Millie (Kaiser) quilts with needle and thread," "Arthur (Williams) milks a cow," "Hattie (Page) tastes soup from her stirring spoon," "Lillian (Gordon) makes lye soap in a big iron kettle," "Roger (Berg) with tripod peeks under cloth to focus his camera," "Helen (Russell) stirs apple butter in big kettle over open fire" and "Mom (Nancy Meyers) plays the pump organ at Olivet Church." The list is a long one, and no more are planned.